James Donaldson still pursuing his passion for art

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 7, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
James Donaldson says he had no idea he’d had any kind of serious impact on Jeffrey Hargrave’s life.
He does, of course, remember Hargrave as a young boy showing up at his house almost daily, asking him about his art and begging the artist to teach him.
Donaldson’s response: Just watch me do what I do, and then go home and practice.
A self-taught artist, Donaldson was thrilled when his young neighbor was accepted into the North Carolina School of the Arts back in 1992. “What an honor,” he says.
The two never lost touch over the years, and this past summer, Hargrave sent his old friend a letter. He didn’t have the money to buy one of Donaldson’s paintings, he wrote, but would Donaldson be willing to send him a piece of art in exchange for one of his own?
Donaldson agreed.
After he sent the art, he heard back from Hargrave: “Everybody loves your work,” Hargrave told him. “Would you consider doing a show with me?”
And so the “Insight” exhibit was born.
Donaldson, 69, has been retired as a teacher for about 10 years now — he was once named Teacher of the Year at Davie County High School. In his retirement, he’s fully indulging his passion for painting. He paints every day, he says, often waking up at 2 a.m. and working until 5 or 6 a.m.
An artist for more than 40 years, he’s recently tapped into his “inner childhood” with paintings he describes as playful and colorful.
“Color something for me,” he recalls his mother telling him as a young boy.
The emphasis on color has been a fairly new development. “I’m using lots of color, excessive color and just loving it,” he says.
When asked about Hargrave’s art, he says, “Jeff’s work reaches the inner child” as well, but with a focus on painful rather than joyful aspects.
Donaldson has a sense of confidence as an artist that has come relatively late in his career. He’s always been very critical of his own work, he says, but lately, as that inner critic has fallen silent, he’s been able to pour himself enthusiastically into his work.
“I’ve been painting for 40 years now, and if I don’t know how to do it now, I’m not going to know,” he says.
He speaks about how he used to put pressure on himself and never be satisfied with his work or his teaching, until he became aware that this sense of not being good enough had been imposed on him.
His art has gone through various stages and used to be much more “socio-political” in nature, Donaldson says. He remembers one reviewer many years ago writing about his “angry black paintings.”
Sometimes, the social commentary in his paintings frightened people, he acknowledges.
In the 1970s, he notes, many of his paintings were surrealistic, abstract. That was in part due to the social upheaval of the time, he says.
“My mind was like a pitcher of milk, turned over,” with thoughts spilling out everywhere, he says. Eventually, when that tension lessened, he moved back to a more realistic style.
His paintings evolved over the years away from being political statements to being more about the beauty he experiences in his everyday life.
He sees that transformation as having come about through his own maturation.
Donaldson, who looks younger than his years, exudes gentleness and kindness.
You get the sense that Donaldson is peaking as an artist and exulting in every minute of the creative process.
Viewers of his art will also feel that joy.