When you walk into James Morehead’s home, you walk into a perfectly designed artistic oasis.
I am immediately at ease. Every element seems tailored to foster creativity, from the mural painted across the closing doors of his in-home studio to the exquisite, hand painted copies of the great masters in grand frames that draw you into them. It’s a space that relaxes you and at the same time challenges you to break out your paints and try something big.
James himself is relaxed and easy going. He’s got a way of drawing you into the conversation and making you want to discover more of what’s going on in his mind. And when he talks about his paintings, it becomes clear that no detail is left to chance, and each image has a specific story to tell.
He’s an artist that moves from theme to theme, taking the time to tease out of a subject the thing that moves him until he’s mastered it.
The first of these obsessions was the human eye, and the story of how a game of marbles turned into an artistic journey is amazing!
“When my brother was in sixth grade and I was (probably in fourth grade), marbles were big and ‘steelies’ were coveted! We were only about five blocks from downtown Burlingame, California, on the edge of San Francisco Bay. We stopped in at a garage that was there at the edge of the downtown and talked a mechanic into giving us a bearing casing. The bearing in it was probably ¾ of an inch… They were nice!
“We did just about everything we could to break that casing open… We had a ladder, and I think we cracked the patio when we dropped it. He was beating on it with a hammer, and a sliver from the head of the hammer went through his lower eyelid, through his left eye to the back of the eye, and severed part of his optic nerve.
“At the hospital they extracted it with a magnet, and I was allowed in his room afterwards when he was to the point of recovery. The doctor had drawn him a picture: It was a diagram of the profile of the eye so we could see what had happened to him. My brother drew that profile for me, and I started to draw that profile a lot. I was obsessed with it… to understand what had happened.
“At one point, I turned the profile into just looking at the front of the eye – the iris, the white, and the pupil. And I drew it time after time after time. Then, as time went on, I started to add eyelids… and eyelashes… and skin… and then the eyebrow. Then, at some point, I started adding a nose, or the bridge of the nose. And it just grew slowly. My confidence and my skill just slowly grew.
“The biggest challenge for me was lining up the eyes… that second eye.”
He credits his skill to the fact that he never gave up. “Everybody was drawing in grade school, and I never quit. I got to sixth grade… I remember this one incident where I got complimented by a teacher. She was just fascinated by the intricacy of a design I was working on… and it was just me doodling. That’s when I became more aware of it and continued educating myself through library books.”
During his formative years, he copied the grand masters (Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent), spending his days studying their composition, their use of color, the way they applied the paint, faithfully reproducing each image, although occasionally taking some creative liberties if he had an idea he thought was better. He created a copy of Rembrandt’s “Man in a Golden Helmet” on a manila folder while serving in the Air Force.
Over the last few years, he’s channeled his creative energy towards painting for a series of French galleries that operate worldwide, and his specialty is paintings of buffalos, cows, and the occasional longhorn sheep. I had heard about them over the years, but I’d never had a chance to see any of them. When I mentioned them, he chuckled and began rummaging through his archives, eventually coming back with a box full of stunning originals.
Holding one of his originals in my hand is exciting. They have substance. The images I’m holding are small: the largest are only about a foot across, but they are surprisingly heavy because of the amount of paint that it takes to create them. When I mention their weight, he laughs and comments that the French gallery wanted heavy “painterly” originals.
Every painting has a history, and as we sip our tea, we start to go through them and he tells little anecdotes about how each one came about. I snap a photo of him with one image of an imposing buffalo standing strong against a howling winter wind.
“Most of them that I do the landscapes for (from my photographs) we took on a trip (to the Grand Canyon) several years ago. This is a combination done from someone else’s photograph (of the buffalo) and then I added the cold, frosty look. Then Donna (my wife) suggested snow in the air. So this one is a fantasy.”
In another image, he took a photo of long horn sheep standing in a field outside of Newberg, Oregon. In the final painting, they are spread across a lush meadow, basking in the shadow of the rocky cliffs of Arizona. It’s at that moment that I realize what’s so interesting about his work: He uses reality for his inspiration, but then creates a world of his own choosing as the structure for his images, often employing warm colors, like the coloring of hills at sunset. This gives them a soft, but commanding, presence.
One of his longest running passions are waterfalls. In one image, his penchant for creating his own reality is on full display as a woman stands along the edge of a pond, arms extended, soaking up the spray of a series of raging waterfalls, pounding down from a rocky precipice. He’s done several versions of the scene over the years, each one emphasizing a different aspect of his current interest. In one, the woman is made smaller so that the scale of the waterfall takes on a larger, more looming presence. Giant logs, like matchsticks, plunge over the side of the falls, their shadow dwarfing the woman as she looks on. As you look at the image, you can almost feel the spray on your face and the hot sun on your back, and you wish you could be there experiencing it in real life.
His working studio is set in the back of his home. As the door opens, the center of the room is taken up with a large canvas on an easel - the classic blank slate. His brushes are prepped and ready, and his walls are filled with his recent creations, including a copy of a portrait from the 1600s and a new version of one of his waterfall images.
He’s ready to get to work and dazzle his fans with a new creation!