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The Art of Life

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Photograph by Jared Castaldi You can’t doodle your way through school, James.”

That was the admonition James Newton heard from his teachers at Irving Avenue Elementary School in Bridgeton, New Jersey.

Those teachers saw a bright but indifferent student. When young James wasn’t doodling, he was playing basketball or baseball or working in the surrounding farm fields, picking tomatoes, potatoes, beans, strawberries.

So the teachers made him the school cartoonist. Then, to help him find words for the dialogue balloons in his cartoons, they sent him to the library to increase his vocabulary. There, he took to books much like he had taken to crayons and paper.

“I liked books about the world, the Pyramids, the Egyptians,” says Newton, of Newark, the former head of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware. He also read the new works that came to the library, such as a biography of Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion. As his appreciation of books grew, a new world opened, and the indifferent student found a calling in academia. But first, Newton would have to deal with something else—his love for art, a love that went unrequited for many years.

After graduating from Bridgeton High in 1959, he joined the Army, which took him to Germany, where he looked on in awe at the lines of people waiting to enter art museums. “We didn’t have any museums anywhere near Bridgeton,” he says.

Then it was home again, to North Carolina Central University, where he earned a degree in art and German. He ran track—middle distance races—graduated cum laude and was eventually voted into his alma mater’s sports hall of fame.

But always there was the doodling. He doesn’t object to the word—he uses it himself. But it was truly art, all sorts of art: oil paintings he did in high school to make money on the side, caricatures of officers in his Army unit, portraits for German widows of their husbands, done from photographs.

He knew he was good, but how good? Granted, he couldn’t doodle his way through school, but could he doodle his way through life?

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In 1966, Newton decided to find the answer to that question. Screwing up his courage, he took his small carton of drawings to an open audition for the University of North Carolina’s fine arts program in Chapel Hill. He was accepted, and in 1968 became the first African-American to receive the master of fine arts degree from UNC.

He learned more than just painting and sculpture during his three years there. He also took away some life lessons.

Chapel Hill of the late ’60s was not the enlightened city it is today. One night during his first year, after working late in the school’s art center, as he often did, police stopped him as he was walking home and asked for identification. He showed them his student card, but the cops accused him of impersonating a student and held him in a detention area until a university official vouched for him.

“That was a big jolt,” says Newton. “It was humiliating and devastating, and I was ready to quit, but my adviser talked me into staying.”

As an African-American, he came to understand that he was “a curiosity” there, as he puts it. But he learned to hold his head high, especially as he began to win awards. “My work was starting to take on a life of its own, and I got to the point where I thought I was competitive.”

For a while, he considered pursuing a career as a full-time artist. Perhaps he could have made it, had he become more “commercial,” doing portraits, caricatures, landscapes and such. But he had his own style, and he would not compromise it. Finally reality set in. By the time he received his masters in fine arts, he was married and had a daughter. He needed a job and benefits.

His wife, LaWanda, was an elementary school teacher in Wilmington, so they moved to Delaware, where Newton went to work as an interior designer at Atlantic Aviation. But he had acquired a taste for the academic life, so after a year in Wilmington, he accepted a position as assistant professor of art at West Chester University, teaching design and art history. A year later he moved the family to Normal, Illinois, and Illinois State University, where he taught art courses while getting a doctorate in curriculum development and education research.

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In 1973 the family returned to Delaware, where Newton joined the UD faculty. He served as chair of the Black American Studies department for the next 20 years. He also published three books and wrote and published extensively on African-American artists and black culture in America.

But he never stopped doodling. While he was productive in spurts during his teaching career, he has become especially prolific since retiring in 2005. Last year marked his first solo show in Delaware, “James Newton: The Art of Delineation.” Julie McGee, the university’s curator of African American Art, felt compelled to mount the exhibition after she saw some of Newton’s works at the home of James Jones, UD’s director of African American Studies.

The “Couch Potato Drawings” were a focal point of the exhibition. The 100 images, done with black marker on 8½-by-11 cardboard, depict scenes from Newton’s youth in Bridgeton, including his paper route, fishing expeditions and neighborhood gatherings. 

“The Couch Potato drawings were enormously popular, both for their narrative and structural content,” says McGee. “Artists who are interested in graphic novels and artist’s books have also been attracted to the work. The individual drawings speak to Newton’s artistic sensibilities and attraction to line as content.”

The two-month-long exhibition demonstrated the range of Newton’s oeuvre, and included the semi-comic “Rufus The All-American Dog” series, as well as serious work such as “Seascapes” and “They Came Before Columbus.”

“Seascapes” is especially illustrative of Newton’s work, according to Cara Zimmerman Campbell, a doctoral student in UD’s department of art history, who organized “The Art of Delineation.”

“One of the things I most love about Jim’s art is the fact that he really embraces narrative, and the narrative is very often personal,” she says. “And it comes out in many different forms—in political forms, in highly personal narratives such as the ‘Couch Potato’ series. It also comes out in the form of landscapes and areas and aesthetics that he grew up with, which he then translates to the actual work.
 

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“An example of that would be ‘Seascapes,’ where he takes the vista of the New Jersey seashore and dunes and translates that into this contemporary work, which allows him to incorporate a narrative of his experience, but also a narrative of space and place.”

Newton himself says, “I’m eclectic. I do serious, then I go back and do something else.”

His ideas come from everywhere: his reading, television, his background in history, life around him and, of course, his childhood. When an idea strikes him, he tries to hang onto it until he can get to the studio in the basement of his spacious home in Corner Ketch “and start doodling.” Using acrylic colored pencils and crayons on illustration board, news board or newsprint, he works quickly on a table—never an easel. He doesn’t do preliminary sketches, and throws away nothing. If he makes a mistake, he works around it.

“The ideas just seem to flow,” he says. “Sometimes I might have a theme in mind, like when I did ‘They Came Before Columbus.’ These portray the pre-Columbian era, when ships were coming off the west coast of Africa and trade winds would sweep them into the coast of Florida, Mexico, etc. You would get Indian, African, almost Asiatic influences, and [as the series shows] these groups would all go exploring, but eventually everyone would think they were Hispanic.”

His influences are varied. They include African-American artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Also, he says, “I like Picasso’s stuff, and N.C. Wyeth, the way he pushes paint around.”

Though he understands “computerization and all that,” he’s “kind of wedded to pencil and paper. I might be considered to be out of it when it comes to that. In fact, some people say I’m just a kid. It’s therapeutic, I know that.”

Steve Crawford, retired professor of art history at UD who went to the exhibition twice, sees a dramatic evolution in Newton’s art.

“When I arrived in Newark 40 years ago, his work was totally geometrically abstract,” Crawford says. “The color sense was always good, but it was much simpler than it is today. It was very hard-edged, large. The stuff he’s doing today is figurative and inspired by African and Latin American art, and it has much more of a message than his early work.”

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Crawford especially notes Newton’s use of color. “Sometimes artists are influenced by other artists in their color selection,” he says. “For example, the primary triad of red, yellow, blue, or the secondary triad, green, orange and violet. That’s the sort of thing you would learn in art school. As artists become more individual, they find out individual color combinations. And sometimes they get inspired by cultures, like African cultures, that don’t use the primary and secondary triad the way we do in our schools. They set their own traditions. I think that is probably what Jim has done over the years.”

Though Newton doesn’t classify himself as an African-American artist, he doesn’t object when others do. He knows that the way he is perceived is based on the viewer, not his art. “When I was at Chapel Hill,” people would look at my work and, before they saw me, they would see one thing, and after they saw me they would say, ‘Oh, I can see the African influence there,’” he says.

“But when the dust is cleared and everything is boiled down, it all comes out to be American art. We have artists of different background and heritage who reflect that background. We want to be recognized on the basis of merit and art, not on the basis of our hue.”

Last summer Jim and LaWanda attended his 50th high school reunion in Bridgeton. Displayed prominently at the reunion was a pink and black banner depicting an eagle clutching a globe and the class motto, “Este Vos,” which, loosely translated, means “be yourself.”

Newton won a contest to create that banner when he was a sophomore in 1957, and he seems to be as proud of that as anything he’s done. Which is appropriate, because his hometown of 23,000, just 25 miles on the other side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, is never far away from him, literally or artistically. And it’s doubtful that any of his classmates have been more true to that motto than Jim Newton, doodler extraordinaire.  

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