Jim Bama, legendary Wyoming artist, dies at 95

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Anyone who has lived in Wyoming for any length of time has undoubtedly seen a print of a James Bama painting.

A portrait so vivid, capturing the essence of the subject’s mood, that one wonders if it could be a photograph. The subject, usually a cowboy, looks away from the artist, who has finely detailed the person’s clothing and accoutrements.

It was Jim Bama’s style in his later years, and it’s a big part of his legacy.

Bama died on April 24 at his home in Wapiti. He was 95 years old and leaves behind dozens of works of art that have stood the test of time.

Bob and Nancy Brown, owners of the Big Horn Art Gallery in Cody, told the Cowboy State Daily that since entering Cody’s art world 35 years ago, Bama has stood out not only as a legendary artist, but also as a generous and authentic man. .

“When we first thought about moving to Cody, they were having an event in Old Trail Town, and Jim was there and Bob Edgar was there,” Nancy said, referring to the “Old Trail Town” creator and the subject of one of Bama’s most famous plays, “At the Burial of Gallagher and Blind Bill”.

“And as someone very new to the potential art world, I was absolutely in awe of this artist who could paint in such a photogenic way,” she added. “Physically, yes, but so graphically, and capturing so much through that, and I think that’s what people responded to in Jim.”

Western art has not always been Bama’s calling card. When he started selling his work at the age of 15, Bama was an illustrator.

In a 2014 interview with Robert Deis, Bama recalled his first paid job ($50 for an aerial drawing of Yankee Stadium for “The Sporting News”) and how his dream was to be a cartoonist, like his first hero, Alex Raymond. (Flash Gordon). After his discharge from the army in the 1940s, Bama attended art school on the GI Bill, which led to a career as an illustrator.

Bama was the illustrator for the entire 62-book “Doc Savage” series as well as several men’s magazine covers in the 1950s and 1960s.

He took his own photos (over 55,000) on which he based his drawings and used various mediums depending on the work.

“For the men’s adventure magazines, I worked with quick-drying water-based paints on illustration board due to deadlines,” Bama told Deis. “My paperbacks and fine art paintings were almost all in oil. When you work in oil, the paint is thick and you are working on a textured surface. When you work with water-based paint, the paint is thin and you are working on a drawing board, which is smoother.

Along with his wife, Lynne, whom he married in 1964, Bama moved to Cody in 1968, where his career as a magazine and book cover illustrator gradually came to a halt and a new phase of his work began – the realistic portraits he took of men and women. in the West.

“I’ve been taking pictures here for almost 40 years,” Bama told Deis in 2014, “and I have a record of all the old ones: a guy who drove a 24-horsepower steam stagecoach, the oldest living Arapaho Indian, who was on Tim McCoy’s Wild West Show and performed for Queen Victoria and was in the silent film “Covered Wagon. I caught a lot of these people when they were 90. And Robert Yellowtail, who was a famous Crow Indian Chief. I have them not only in my artwork, but in photography.

It was Bama’s western art that hooked Bob and Nancy Brown in the 1990s.

“When he moved here, he was completely ecstatic about West,” Bob said. “He had grown up watching movies and the cowboys were pretty awesome. He never considered himself a Western artist, he didn’t like that title. He considered himself an American realist.

“When he came here he was just mesmerized by the people and the characters and the stories they were telling,” Nancy added, “and he could do a really good job of telling stories through his paintings and through the people he was painting.. And I think that’s part of what made him successful and what people responded to, because otherwise it’s just a portrait of someone you don’t know .

Several books have been published on the subject of Bama’s work, one of which was titled “American Realist” and was compiled by Bama himself and Brian Kane and published in 2006. Other compilations include “The Western Art of James Bama,” (1975); “James Bama: sketchbook” (2010); and “James Bama: Personal Works” (2012).

“Certainly, of his contemporaries, he was way up the ladder for that, way up,” Bob Brown pointed out. “And if you look back at these artists who have done well, over the past 40, 50, 60 years, most of them were artists who had careers in illustration before getting involved full-time in Western art.

Because Bama did not consider himself a strictly Western artist, he applied his realistic style to other subjects, including people he photographed during a cultural exchange trip to China in 1987.

“He probably wouldn’t have been happy to have been lumped in with other Western artists, because what he did, in his mind, was different,” Bob said. “He was capturing people.”

The Browns spoke of Bama’s love for his wife, Lynne, who Nancy said was “the love of his life.”

“She really sacrificed her own career (as a writer),” Nancy said. “She kept writing, kept producing stuff, but her career didn’t flourish at Cody. They really loved each other and that’s a great example of how that relationship can work.

Bama’s generous spirit was his defining characteristic, the Browns said.

“As high as he was in the world of American Realism and Western art, he was truly a humble guy,” Nancy said. “Very down to earth. He would just as easily get up and talk to the cashier at the grocery store as he would to (renowned entertainer) Howard Terpning. It didn’t matter. He was very humble that way. He was a good man and an iconic artist.

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