Renaissance woman

By Steve Harwood and Bob Ward/Special to the Pilot November 01, 2013 08:00 pm

Liz James listens to a group of limericists during a celebration in her honor in 2009 hosted by the Pelican Bay Arts Association at Manley Art Center in Brookings. Photo courtesy Nola Range
Liz James listens to a group of limericists during a celebration in her honor in 2009 hosted by the Pelican Bay Arts Association at Manley Art Center in Brookings. Photo courtesy Nola Range
Brookings artist and overall Renaissance woman Liz James died in October at the age of 87, but she left behind a legacy of community involvement in the local arts and music scenes, and served as an inspiration to many people.

Liz, or Lizard as she was known to friends and colleagues, died peacefully at her home on the Winchuck River on October 12. She was a talented artist and musician. She was a prolific watercolorist and also dabbled in silver jewelry and sculpture. 

She was born in Sonora, California, in 1926. As a child Liz wanted to be a concert violist and she pursued that goal from her first lessons in the fourth grade until she was in college. She played in symphonies, stringed trios and quartets. She remembers her music teacher trying to discourage her from making music a career because of the limited opportunities for women in symphony orchestras at that time. Most professional classical musicians were men. Her second love was art so she also practiced and took art lessons during her musical career. 

As the war began in 1945, she lied about her age so she could participate in the Civil Defense Corps. She learned to send and receive Morse code at 40 words per minute and, despite her young age, quickly assumed leadership roles. 

Immediately after the war she traveled to Honduras and Panama with her sister and brother-in-law, Virginia and Clive Manley, as an artist, part of the post-war, post-canal mapping expedition. Her job was to illustrate wildlife in their native habitat — mostly amphibians because they lost their vivid colors once preserved. An experience that both exemplified and solidified her adventuresome spirit. 

After her work in Honduras she began a commercial art career in the San Francisco Bay area that lasted for 30 years. Her professional career covered such fields as book illustrations, audio visual and computer-assisted training design, advertising, fashion illustrating, product and package design and medical/scientific illustration.

 Liz worked in all types of media, including oil, acrylic, airbrush, charcoal, watercolors. Though she painted almost as a hobby, a few San Francisco galleries displayed her work to critical acclaim. 

She married in the late 1940s and worked in San Francisco illustrating the Sears and Roebuck catalog. 

By the late 50s she had two children, Steve and Lauren, when tragedy struck: She lost Lauren to leukemia and her husband left her. She moved to Menlo Park with her son and worked at Stanford University as an artist on an early computer-assisted learning project for the developmentally disabled. 

During this period she began painting in watercolor more and more seriously.

She had given up the violin in 1954 because her first husband couldn’t stand the instrument and she had no place to practice. Fifteen years later when she tried to pick it up again she found it was too difficult being a single parent with small children and finding time to devote to it. Also, having done so well with the violin at one time in her life, it was frustrating not being able to regain her expertise without long hours and years of work. Because she loved music she explored other instruments — guitar, concertina and the recorder. She played her recorder with a Renaissance Group while living in Palo Alto. 

In the late 1960s she met the love of her life, Dorian James. Someone with whom she could share her enjoyment of art, music and the outdoors. They were married at Yosemite in 1970 and lived and  worked in the San Francisco area until 1977 when visits to her sister Virginia Manley over the years convinced the James couple that they should move to the Southern Oregon Coast. So in 1977 Dorian quit his technical illustrator job with Memorex, Liz closed her commercial art studio and they moved to Brookings. It wasn’t easy getting started in Brookings. Dorian worked at odd jobs and Liz concentrated on teaching and producing fine art. Liz said, “It was a struggle for a while but it was the best thing we’ve ever done.” 

Since there was no place in Brookings for professional artists to display their work, she convinced 14 other professionals to go in with her and open “The Professional Artists Guild,” a beautiful gallery on Brookings’ Chetco Avenue. Open for three years, it closed when many of the artists did not want the pressures of having to produce art so that displays could be changed monthly; also, the artists had to staff the gallery since there was not enough revenue at the time to pay outside help. 

After the gallery closed, she and then City Manager Lynn Stuart (also an artist and musician), started BACA, the Brookings Area Council of the Arts. They had a summer Arts Festival, week-long events with gallery walks, poetry, readings, art exhibits and demonstrations. These events faded over time but Liz said, “Maybe we were a little ahead of our time. But perhaps it will get going again.” From BACA came the “Friends of Music” organization that schedules concerts periodically in Brookings. The band shell in Azalea Park was a BACA project. 

Since moving to Brookings Liz had more than 25 featured shows in California and Oregon and she was a consistent award winner in juried exhibitions. Her painting “Finger Food” was selected to appear on the 1990 Oregon State Fair Poster. Another of her works, “Sempervirons,” appeared on a jigsaw puzzle published by Museum Puzzles to benefit the Redwood Natural History Association, affiliate of Redwood National Park. 

She received the Signature Award of The Society of Western Artists, and earned the Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum Merit Awards from the Watercolor Society of Oregon where she served on the Board of Directors. Her work is represented in private and corporate collections in all of the 50 states and nine foreign countries. 

Of her own work she said, “In my work I try to ‘tell it as it is.’ I love people and see beauty and humor in them all, old and young, warts and all. I try to catch a moment in time that evokes recognition and sympathy and expands our understanding and tolerance for ourselves and others. I believe a work of art should give us a heightened awareness of our lives and, perhaps, show us some aspect of ourselves we never noticed before.” 

During the ensuing years Liz faced many challenges. She lost her left eye to cancer and, although she tried to continue her wonderful watercolor paintings, she stopped because she said, “I’ve lost my perspective. It’s all one dimensional now ... just doesn’t look right.” She made beautiful silver jewelry, but that also became difficult and soon lost its appeal. 

In 2006 she designed and published “WATERCOLOR NUTS AND BOLTS A workshop in a Book.” A wonderful book of lessons and illustrations. A few hundred were created by Liz and Dorian with the idea it might be in classroom settings, seminars and bookstores. Those of us who have this “Bible” love not only the lessons therein but the wonderful examples of her paintings. 

She once said, “Being a good artist is not enough. What you need to do is go out in the community and engage in the ‘politics of art.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do.” Liz approached all challenges with uncommon confidence and fearlessness. She was intelligent, talented and opinionated. She touched many with her gracious humor and love for life. Hers was a life well-lived. 

During the past few years, Liz’s son Steve Harwood came to live with her and Dorian as a companion and caregiver at their home on the Winchuck. 

Liz was preceded in death by her cats Gilbert, Sullivan and Butter, her daughter Lauren and her loving husband Dorian. 

A celebration of her life will be held in the near future. Donations to the Pelican Bay Arts Association, Friends of Music and the Winchuck Fire Department can be made in lieu of flowers.