JIM DRAPER nature to nurture

by Jon Bosworth
“Art communities are like animal hoarders. It’s a lot like a cat lady,” says Jim Draper while laughing at the suggestion. “There are good parts and there are significant challenges,” he continues as he describes the new CoRK Artist Community from his own CoRK studio.
Perhaps one of Jacksonville’s most celebrated artists for the caliber of his paintings, the weight of his vision, and his active role in the community, Draper is widely known for his impressionistic palms, rich riverscapes, and even sublime portraits of farm animals. He is also known as an advocate for indigenous Jacksonville culture. He helps local musicians stage shows in the city’s beautiful and under-utilized spaces, he supports up-and-coming artists, ushering them into Jacksonville’s larger art worlds, and generally supports people making art. He is that rare case of a commercially successful artist that makes his living with his painting while creating uncompromising work rich with texture and meaning.
And this isn’t his first rodeo. Draper has been part of Riverside’s art scene for decades. He’s seen these art communities come and go over the years. CoRK, however, is unlike its predecessors in many ways, one of which is that it is home to an artist such as Jim Draper.
“It’s nice having people around. I don’t have to have saws and stuff; if I need something like that I can just run down to Donald. Or Dolf can weld, he has a welder. You can get stuff fixed fast. It’s kind of like ‘it takes a village.’ But it actually works.”
Draper’s favorite aspect of his studio at CoRK is space. It’s a vast open space with giant walls. He has works-in-progress hanging on these walls that are more than seven feet tall and fifteen feet long. CoRK has allowed him the privacy and space to immerse himself in his work.
How’s this for immersion: When you were sitting around a tree unwrapping gifts or sleeping late this Christmas, Draper was kayaking around the southern tip of Florida through mangroves and hammocks and brush. He was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and climbing over key islands with his camera, capturing Florida’s natural environment the ways he likes to portray it, absent of humanity.
“I try to leave any references to human beings out, let that be the unknown. References to humans are so obvious. I think they are clearly absent. There’s a human quality, which gets you to the surreal more than the real. These elements (pointing at cypress trees in a painting) become the characters instead of the people being the characters.”
Draper’s dripping-wet riverscapes have always appeared dreamlike. Their vibrancy and glow gives them a surreal quality. However, when he showed me the photographs of his adventure kayaking along the tip of our peninsula, the dramatic sunsets, the solitary dead tree standing alone in the shallows, the untouched tree-lined beaches splashed in the light of sunrise, I realized that his work is less surreal than I thought. Those vivid explosions of color and complexity also come through in his pictures. He’s conveying a sort of life on his canvas that isn’t outside of our window, it’s deep in our woods at daybreak; it’s only apparent when you are wet up to your knees, or drifting silently in a canoe. It is dreamlike. He is representing it well.
This most recent exploration is just one of a series of such expeditions all over the state. Draper is collecting images and sketches of the amazing diversity of Florida’s natural environments for a large upcoming show, which he will call “The Feast of Flowers.”
“It’s about the five-hundredth anniversary of Ponce de Leon, but it’s not glorifying colonialism or imperialism, it’s more about exposing the blatant consumerism of the Feast of Flowers – that Western idea of eating everything you can get your hands on. So this show is about Florida before 1513.”
Certainly, getting out in the water helps him immerse himself in the subject matter, but there is more to discover up close than even the grand imagery.
“The immersion informs, not so much visually, but it’s a background to the visual. If you’re not careful with this stuff, you can wind up copying pictures out of magazines. The innocuous pretty picture is not something I’m interested in. I mean, it’s fine, but I’d rather it be about something a little more significant.”
He finds that significance in the tiny details.
“More than anything, you pick up these subtle little metaphors. I’m interested in these visual metaphors and the relationships in nature… The name of the big painting I’m going to do is Sacrificial Leaves. The mangrove will pick a leaf on every branch, it picks one leaf and sends all of the salt to that leaf and the leaf will die so the rest of the plant can have clean water. I like that idea as a metaphor.”
Because Draper will be spending the coming year putting together this ambitious portrait of Florida’s natural environment, he has no shows or events planned any time soon. Keep a lookout in this publication for news about where and when the Feast of Flowers exhibition will show. In the meantime, if you are craving an artful experience, Jim Draper might suggest you get out into some natural spaces and experience it first-hand.
“You miss a lot when you keep building a shell around yourself. There are some things you can’t buy at Wal-Mart.”