“Anybody could do this if they just took the time to practice,” my new neighbor, Jim, said shortly after we met. We were sitting in his tiny trailer in the shadow of a huge bluff 100 feet away, sipping cheap instant coffee, as I marvel at his drawings
“No,” I countered, “Few people even have the patience to practice this.” He smiled, shrugged, and chuckled — a common combination for Jim.
We were living next to each other down a small lane along a creek south of Austin Texas in the fall of 1973. I tell people we didn’t exactly live “in the country” — more like in the boonies. My brother and I shared a house and Jim lived in one of 2 trailer houses permanently moored on part of the land beside us. We were all pretty broke and scraping by while enjoying our quiet life on our little lane.
I was on the family stipend for schooling, my sophomore year at UT. My brother, a recent honors English graduate, was working night shift at a blue collar job to stay in Austin. Jim was driving a produce delivery truck — and drawing these amazing sketches.
Jim worked in black & white exclusively when we met. “When I get that down,” he said, “Then, I’ll start thinking about color.” Eventually, he did some work in color, but he always returned to his beloved black & white.
But he was making no money from his art. He hated the quality of prints that could be made from his pen & ink drawings — the detail always got lost in murky darkness. Asked if he had tried selling at “Starving Artist” shows, he snorted in derision. “Designed to keep the artist starving,” he shook his head. So he was driving a produce delivery truck to pay his meager rent, looking for a break.
The previous summer, I tried my hand briefly at selling handmade candles at Austin’s brand-new People’s Renaissance Market. I failed utterly, but that’s another story. The connection here is I had bought a craft vendor’s license to do so and I wasn’t using it, so I loaned it to Jim — and that was his start selling his art. I’ve always been happy & proud to have helped him in that way at that time.
I enlisted Jim to illustrate a story we hoped to turn into a comic book — graphic novel, really, but the term did not yet exist — revolving around a old man realizing he is going blind. Though we never finished the comic book, much less publish it, I did use the story line and some of Jim’s art in a short film I substituted for an English lit paper, featuring my brother as the old man going blind. One of the pieces was a portrait of my brother as the old man.
So that spring, as Mother’s Day loomed, my brother and I decided to give Mom our twin pencil portraits done by Jim.
He’d already done one of my brother, so he came over to do one of me. He sat down as I kept reading a school assignment.
“I’ll be done in a minute,” I said.
“Me, too,” he replied.
Well, we all moved away from the country lane fairly soon. But I would run across Jim later, first providing illustrations for the poet Susan Bright‘s chapbook, Julia, and then, later, selling at the Texas Renaissance Festival. We stayed friends as he found a pathway living his life as an artist, working primarily the Renaissance Festival circuit and related crafts shows like the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.
His artwork never ceased to improve and amaze me, as he grew into weaving fantasy visions into his works. Starting with images of trees that seemed to have people merging with or emerging from them, he incorporated increasing numbers of wizards, dragons, fairies and other mythical creatures.
He carved scrimshaw fantasy scenes into ivory pieces for awhile, using old scrap piano keys for small scenes. I treasured a small box adorned with one of his wizardly scenes hidden behind a small elfish door and carried it until the wood warped and door broke off.
Along the way, Jim earned a reputation for his fantasy scenes that allowed him greater freedom to focus on his art. He was now not only selling at Renaissance Festivals, some of them were commissioning his artwork for promotional pieces. Once he’d gotten more fully satisfied with the quality of prints of his work, he even dabbled some in color — but generally returned to black & white time and time again.
With Jim’s permission, I used one of his large drawings invoking a Chinese folk tale about ginseng and a young man’s magical transformation into a tiger as the basis for a logo and the name of my freelance video services in the mid-80s, calling myself Tyger’s Eye Video.
Jim moved out of Austin, drifted around a bit in central Texas to increasingly rural locations, looking for tranquil settings to do his work. At one point, he was living off a small dirt road off a slightly larger dirt road running by a railroad track in a tiny community near Bastrop called Sayersville. If you didn’t know exactly where you going, you would never find that house.
I lost touch with him as he worked the renaissance circuit more and more. I think it was sometime in the late 90s when I last saw him. He was living near Rochester, New York — his business card listed his address as “The Center of the Universe.” He’d come down to the Dillo Xmas Bazaar that year to scout out music for his local bluegrass festival. See, along the way, he became quite the folk musician for campfire jams.
I have my favorite of his drawings hanging over my desk, a wizard working wonders with a book and some fairies. As I look at it, I often wonder: is the wizard setting the fairies free from their print prison — or is he infusing the playful zest of the spirits flitting about him into the book?
Jim wandered home to his family in West Texas awhile later and I never really got a chance to talk to him after that. We connected again via email and he was on his way back to Austin and another Dillo Xmas Bazaar when he stopped along the road and somehow fell and broke his arm. He managed to limp home that day, nursing his broken arm while driving, but I never spoke with him again.
Facebook forever reminds you of such events as birthdays and so, two years ago, I happily posted a greeting, “Happy Birthday, you old fart!” on his timeline. Then I saw where someone had posted the news that Jim had died just a few days before. He’d fallen in the shower, and while it was uncertain of the sequence, he broke his neck and had a heart attack — either one could have killed him. Shocked and suddenly ashamed of my post, I nearly deleted it, then thought a minute. I believe my post most likely gave jim a chuckle, if that was at all possible.
I miss Jim terribly, but to this day, just to think of him brings me a smile — I can hear his soft chuckle and that voice and I see that impish grin.
Sure wish we could sit in that tiny old trailer sipping bad instant coffee again for awhile — maybe later, huh, Jim?
More of my Jim Nelson pieces are collected in a Facebook photo album here — enjoy.