Described as “kind, courtly and supremely talented — not a combination you find in many people,” by journalist Anthony Westbury, James Gibson is as remembered today for his style and charisma as he is for his art.
Born the oldest of eight children in 1938 in Moore Haven, Fla., the family moved to Fort Pierce sometime in the early 40s where Gibson counted Alfred Hair, one of the founders of the Highwaymen, among his childhood friends. Painting from a young age, The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, reports Gibson started out drawing characters and scenes from books. But it wasn’t until his late teens that he left college in Tennessee and came home to join Hair in making and selling paintings.
“I’ve always thought of James as the ambassador of the group who could tell their story, because he was there (when it happened),” Highwaymen collector Roger Lightle told the TC Palm in a 2017 interview. And indeed Gibson was there from the very beginning of the Highwaymen’s informal founding as a group, working with Hair, Harold Newton, and Roy McLendon from the group’s earliest days making and selling paintings.
Painting fast – once he painted 100 paintings in a day to win a bet with Hair – Gibson was a savvy businessman and learned what was popular and sold best, paying attention to décor he encountered on the road and even, according the The Highwaymen Trail, calling carpet factories to learn which colors were selling best. “To label it ‘motel art’ is quite a compliment, when you think about it,” noted Highwaymen expert and author Gary Moore told the TC Palm in 2017. “(Gibson’s) early work was vernacular painting that fitted in with (customers’) wants and needs. It was raw, primitive and real.” Also telling the paper that Gibson’s early paintings were unusual for the group, “He was always trying new things with his painting.”
An adept salesman as well, Gibson enjoyed recounting his run-in with a Florida state trooper sometime in the early 60s. “This guy was about 6 feet, 6 inches and he had those mirrored sunglasses — the kind you can see your reflection in,” Gibson told the Herald Extra in 2005. The trooper wanted to take a look in his trunk. “I opened the trunk and he saw the paintings. Then, he saw his color. He asked, ‘Are those for sale? What about that blue one?'” Gibson ended up selling the trooper two paintings, and then went on to sell more at the Highway Patrol Headquarters in Palm Beach, where they still hang today.
Gibson was one of the few Highwaymen who worked as an artist steadily throughout his life, and never left painting for other work. The Highwaymen Trail reports Gibson as saying he had three phases in his career as an artist: “The first was painting for everyone. The second was painting for those who wanted to spend a bit more. By 2000 he was painting exceptional works that only a few people could afford.”
“He took the opportunity that recognition afforded him to hone himself as a painter in ways he could never afford in the heyday of the Highwaymen,” A. E. Backus museum director Kathleen Fredrick told the TC Palm. “Once he found fame, he really developed his skills. His later work had a real painterly quality. He finally had the time to develop his talent and find a market willing to pay much higher prices than other Highwaymen.”
“I love to work on seascapes with water and palm trees,” Gibson told the Herald Extra in 2005. “But you’ve got to paint what the public wants. I’m still not at the stage where people buy my work just because my name is on it. I used to go out and sell my paintings. Now people come to buy my paintings.”
Several of Gibson’s works have hung in the White House, as well as in the Florida State Capitol, and Florida Supreme Court, and two even featured prominently in the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. Owners of Gibson’s works include both Presidents Bush, as well as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood. A Gibson landscape served as former Florida Governor Charlie Christ’s official Christmas card one year while he was in office, and Gibson designed the White House Christmas tree ornament one year for First Lady Laura Bush.
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004 and the recipient of the Florida Ambassador Art Award in 2005, James Gibson died on August 15, 2017 at the age of 79.