Retrospective of James Donaldson’s paintings shows the evolution of the artist’s style

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 22, 2013

James Donaldson’s art has grown and changed along with him.
He found art during his childhood, in a Rosenwald school for African American children, growing up in a world that, as he puts it, “no longer exists.”
His art brought him through trials and hardships, and carried him into a career as an educator.
All along the way, Donaldson said, his art has been his emotional outlet, his way of interpreting the world.
Now, for the first time in his career, the longtime local art instructor’s works are on display at the Center for Faith & the Arts in Salisbury.
The gallery show, “Journey of an Artist,” is a retrospective of Donaldson’s career, from his early surrealist paintings and drawings to his present-day abstract and en plein air paintings.
During a Dec. 12 reception opening the show, Donaldson, 69, told Susanna Hollingsworth of the Center for Faith & the Arts that he had never expected to be honored this way in his lifetime.
His art, Donaldson said, is more than ink or paint.
“It’s really me,” he said.
Born in August 1944 in northern Mecklenburg County, Donaldson said the roads and places he used to know have disappeared – some beneath the waters of Lake Norman, others under the parking lots of shopping centers and the lawns of new homes.
When he was a schoolboy, Donaldson said his teacher would punish him for talking during class.
The problem was, Donaldson said, he would finish his work too quickly.
“At that time, you weren’t called ‘gifted,’ or anything,” Donaldson said.
Finally, instead of punishing him for talking, the teacher started giving him finger-paints and paper.
That’s how his artwork started. As a child, Donaldson said, he painted nature and the world around him. He went on to be recognized for his art in talent competitions.
As a young man, he began to present the world as he saw it. In the 1960s, he studied the masters and learned the alla prima or wet-on-wet style of painting.
Donaldson said he was enamored with surrealism, the style of art for which Salvador Dali and others are known.
He was never satisfied, but kept on striving for perfection. Even works that others praised – such as his 1977 surrealist drawing, “Brotherhood,” praised by author Alex Haley – left him feeling he had come up short.
But more than that, Donaldson said, was the impact his constant struggle to interpret the world was having on his creative consciousness.
“Imagine a pitcher of milk on a table,” Donaldson said, “and all at once, something knocked it over.”
That “pitcher of milk,” he said, was his creativity.
Coming into the 1970s, Donaldson said that his focus on surrealism could have damaged his career.
“I was breaking, and I was glad to break,” Donaldson said.
Even before drawing “Brotherhood,” he had made a conscious decision to start moving away from that style.
His 1976 pen-and-ink drawing “Always & Forever” shows three images of Norma Jean Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe.
Donaldson said this work, which shows the transformation of the “childlike” young woman into an American sex symbol, was the start of his move toward a more realistic style.
“I guess I suffer from nostalgia,” Donaldson said. “Where I played, the wooded areas, the areas I ran, are all mansions and parking lots of shopping centers now.”
Art was Donaldson’s way of dealing with pain, he said.
“When you grow up, you’re told that everything is going to be fine when you do what you think is right,” Donaldson said.
He said his constant struggle to excel, to live up to the standards of those around him, pressed Donaldson to be hard on himself and those around him.
Events in his life finally made him realize that perfection is impossible. Following the death of his mother in December 1970, Donaldson said it was difficult to move on.
In the decades that followed, Donaldson focused on painting in acrylics, his works capturing scenes from his childhood and recreating them.
“Coffee Time” shows Donaldson’s mother in a scene that he remembers well: wearing her robe, her hair immaculately coiffed even though it’s still early, pouring the morning’s first cup of coffee.
Other scenes from his life are captured on canvas:
g Children dancing, because Donaldson loved dancing himself as a young man.
g A saxophone player, because the saxophone is a favorite instrument, and has “a lonely sound.”
g And other figures from his life, such as former Soldiers Memorial AME Zion assistant pastor Zacharias Allen.
In Donaldson’s painting “The Servant,” Allen is portrayed reaching out to two children, whom Donaldson said he meant to represent children of different nations and races – symbolizing Allen’s giving spirit.
“He would do anything for you, if he could,” Donaldson said. “At the same time, he was very humble.”
One of Donaldson’s best-known works is the 1983 drawing of the “Story Lady,” Jackie Torrence, whom Donaldson said became a good friend.
Donaldson’s drawing of Torrence was reproduced and sold as the storyteller traveled. A print of it, autographed by Torrence, is on display as part of the show.
Donaldson’s works from recent years are more abstract, showing a move from the more nuanced works of 20 years ago to a more imaginative style.
He said it was a conscious choice to let colors and lines and figures carry the weight of meaning.
His painting “The Grandmother” shows an abstract form of a woman holding a small child, her love and her compassion represented by her form – and her age, Donaldson said, shown through smaller details, such as her bare feet.
In this time, Donaldson said, “grandmothers are often the mothers, taking care of the grandbabies,” and the painting attempts to show that bond.
His painting “9/11, 2001” reflects the national mood of that time: a group of figures, huddled together in prayer and mourning, against the backdrop of an American flag that is tattered, but still flying.
More recently, Donaldson has painted scenes from Salisbury in the open air, including scenes from Hurley Park and Liberty Street.
And he has moved, deliberately, into abstract art – away from bold lines and obvious figures, to more symbolic uses of color.
“A painting is nothing more than lights and darks,” Donaldson said. The wet-on-wet style of painting “is very smooth, with very beautiful colors.”
Today, Donaldson said, he’s continuing to discover himself as an artist – still trying new things with paint and canvas.
And the gallery show, he said, is a part of that process.
“I think you have to know where you’re going,” Donaldson said. “If you just go back and look at the masters, you’ll stay in that box, you’ll want that perfection.”
Likewise, by putting his work out in the open, Donaldson said his art – which is as much a part of him as an arm or an eye – is now something that can help others grow.
Donaldson’s works will be on display at the Center for Faith & the Arts during the next two months. Artist-guided tours are available by appointment.
For more information, call 704-647-0999 or visit
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.