As summer beckons us, we begin to dream of vacations and travel. Then we look at our schedules, hectic lives and realize our time is so limited. Fear not! The west is much closer than you may think! The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in downtown St. Petersburg offers us the opportunity to venture into steep sunlit canyons and the days when settlers and Sitting Bull wandered the lands for a few hours without ever leaving the county.
Tom and Mary James, co-founders of the museum, developed a passion for contemporary western and wildlife art on a ski-trip in Colorado many moons ago. This love spurred a personal collection of over 400 pieces of sculpture, paintings, jewelry and overall magnificence; approximately 300 of which are housed in the St. Pete location. Before you even walk in the museum’s doors, you are greeted by a bronzed Buffalo Bill Cody statue sitting atop a bench, a piece done in 2018 by the renowned artist, Vic Payne. He is casually hanging outside the doors with his rifle waiting for you to sit aside him and take a selfie, which is strongly encouraged. In fact, it is the only piece you may touch, but most likely not the only one you will want to.
Once you are in, you are awe-struck. Not just by the well-versed visitor services associates who can provide guests with information on the museum’s works and all the events they offer, but also by the grand entrance – the Arroyo Sculpture Court. It is vast. Like being instantly transported to the belly of a western canyon.
“The museum was designed to make you feel like you are out west,” Holly Walton, the team leader of the Visitor Experience explains of the impressive structure as we head out on our guided tour. “The waterfall and lights are set to a circadian rhythm, so as the day progresses, the water speeds up and the light gets brighter.”
The grand foyer is like a western valley with its high, narrow stone walls naturally drawing your gaze upwards. You begin to see massive bronze sculptures above that seem like they could leap to life at any moment. Your heart beats a little faster as you feel you may be part of the hunt. You walk ahead towards the waterfall and gentle light falling on John Coleman’s sculpture “Honeymoon at Crow Fair”, regaining peace by looking at the beautifully tender bronze faces of the two newlyweds returning home after their marriage. Venturing up the stairs, you are able to see the sculptures again from entirely different angles, making you feel like you have been sent to their world and way of life.
On the second floor of the museum you may watch a short orientation video to learn about the mission behind the James’s desire to bring their passion to the masses in St. Pete. Education. Information. They want people to know more about the artists who are Native American, and those who portrayed the Native American and Western world through their own lens. They discovered those views could be quite different, but both quite captivating. The rituals and spiritual worlds captured in the art of the west is unlike any other. And the translation of such can be very different. The James family, and the staff of the museum want to bring that to life daily for others to experience.
The museum is broken up into several different galleries in order for any-level of art critic to appreciate the themes running through the vast private collection. As you walk through, you begin to understand the stories the pieces tell. Some are scenes showing secret Native American rituals that the artists had to sacrifice their lives to see, and thus recreate through their art. Others are from Native American artists themselves depicting scenes from their daily lives. Some are so moving, you want to sit in front of them for hours to decipher what it means to you.
Many of the artists are living, and are even known to stop in from time to time to visit their pieces. John and Suzie Seerey-Lester, award-winning artists whose pieces are featured in the Wildlife Gallery, have been seen by his larger than life painting of a gorilla. At first look it appears to just be a dark piece with little to offer the viewer, but as your eyes adjust, you begin to see the giant gorilla shape appear in the midst of a jungle of leaves.
“That was his intent he told us. He wants you to feel the art as you would if you were in the jungle with the gorilla. They just appear like that from the midst. He wants his art to do the same thing,” Holly explains. It is chilling. Both Seerey-Lester’s artistic rendition of the massive animal, and the thought, and one I am certainly glad to appreciate in the safety of the museum’s walls.
Around every turn is more amazement. One does not have to be an art enthusiast, or a playful cowboy at heart to feel the love inside The James Museum. It does help to be provided an informative tour by such knowledgeable staff and helpful visitor service associates, but the museum offers many opportunities to do just that. You are encouraged to ask questions, and a staff member is ready for you with answers. They also know how to make the experience fun! Tuesday evenings they remain open until 8pm for live entertainment, scheduled movies or guided tours of the special exhibits. There is also a cafe onsite so your time away from the everyday can include refreshments. For a complete schedule and to learn more about what THe James Museum can offer please see their website https://thejamesmuseum.org/. This is one twenty minute drive to the wild west you will not regret taking!