What to see at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg

Opened in April of 2018, The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art adds to a surprisingly rich and diverse St. Petersburg art scene which also includes the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, the Chihuly Collection and the Salvador Dali Museum, housing the largest collection of the surrealist’s work outside of Europe. All four are located within walking distance of each other in the city’s increasingly lively Central Arts District. So, what to see at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art?

Tom James, now in his late 70s, served as the CEO and Chairman of the Board at St. Petersburg-based financial services company Raymond James for more than 40 years. The collection began taking shape during the couple’s skiing trips to the western United States.

The James’ focused their collecting on living artists. As a result, you will not see Thomas Moran or Albert Beirstadt in this Western art museum. They aren’t missed here.

See Earl Biss at James Museum

Earl Biss, Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky, detail, on view at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. CHADD SCOTT

A pair of frosty, goosebumps-raising paintings from Earl Biss highlight the collection.

Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky simulates immersion in the Aurora Borealis along with a band of Native Americans. It’s cosmic, spiritual, kaleidoscopic.

This painting feels deeply expressive.

Earl Biss employs a unique palette of colors ranging from variations of white to fuchsia. A close inspection of the canvas shows a wide variety of paint applications. You’ll find heavily impastoed streaks of color, splatters and dabs, paint put on delicately and deliberate, rough and fast.

Three pictures down on the left can be found a sister work, Winter Sunrise Circle of the Big Sky People. This painting was acquired by the James’ in 1985 at a Colorado gallery where they first met Biss. It was their first American Indian art purchase, sparking their passion for Western art. It’s easy to see why.

A string of ancestral Native people on horseback recede through deep snow toward the horizon. One spectral figure turns to look back at the viewer as if to ask, “are you coming?”

Are you?

While part of you can’t help feeling attracted to the romance and freedom of Native people, wanting to join them, another part of you knows what fate has in store for these figures, the same grim fate faced by all Native people at one point in the U.S. This part holds you back.

Where the gathering of figures in Magic Thunder welcomes the viewer to join in, a difficult choice has been placed on the observer by Biss in Winter Sunrise. Spend time with these pictures. You will be glad you did.

See Paul Pletka at James Museum

Paul Pletka, Red Talkers, detail, on view at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. CHADD SCOTT

Beyond Biss, the work of Paul Pletka serves as a revelation. His name will not be familiar to most visitors to the museum. Upon exit, his images will prove unforgettable.

Pletka’s talent starts and ends with his supreme draftsmanship on full display in Red Talkers. This massive–6 by 10 feet–work describes the Cheyenne tribe’s Bull Society Dance. As the participants become more wrapped up in the dance, they begin metamorphosizing into their personal medicine symbols, a metamorphosis captured by Pletka in the picture.

The detail seems infinite.

Move in close to Pletka’s paintings and regard the hands. Admire the detail. Notice the aging. Look at the fingernails and creases made by knuckles.

Technical mastery aside, Pletka’s magic comes from his being able to paint Native subjects in a Native manner–full of empathy, personal expression and symbolic meaning. The James Museum divides its permanent galleries between Native and non-Native artists. The difference between how the two groups handle their subjects–non-Native artists attempting to capture realistic portrayals of scenes to which they are outsiders versus Native artists personally interpreting the images, stories and memories to which they are tied–stands out starkly.

While Pletka is not a Native American, he paints like one. Pletka, now in his early 70s, continues painting based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

For indigenous artists in the Eastern U.S., the James Museum is hard to beat. Fritz Scholder, Tony Abeyta, Shonto Begay and John Nieto all feature in the collection and are all high on anyone’s list of the greatest Native American painters.

Be sure to check out “The Jewelry Box,” holding an astonishing collection of Native jewelry purchased by the James.’

Imagine browsing the galleries of Tucson, Arizona and Indian arts markets of Santa Fe for the past 30 years with a nearly unlimited budget and good eye, selecting only the finest, most extraordinary examples of Native Concho Belts, necklaces, bracelets and rings. Welcome to The Jewelry Box, a collection within a collection worthy enough for a museum all its own.

Necklace and earrings on display inside The Jewelry Box at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. CHADD SCOTT

Visiting the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art: Location, hours and tickets

The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is located at 150 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. Pay parking lots are located within a couple blocks of the museum in nearly every direction.

The James is open from 10 AM – 5 PM, six days a week with extended hours from 10 AM – 8PM on Tuesdays.

General admission tickets are $20, $15 for students/teachers, seniors and active military members. Youth 7-18 are $10 and 6-year-olds and under are free.

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