When Emmy-award-winning graphic designer, watercolor portrait artist, and musician James Gayles moved to Reno from Oakland, he noticed something pretty quickly: there aren’t a lot of Black artists here.
“I discovered that there was no, really, Black art here in Reno, so I said it’s one of my goals to introduce Reno to Black art—my art—you know, maybe bring some more artists here,” Gayles said.
A student of the Pratt Institute in New York who studied under painters like Jacob Lawrence and super realist Audrey Flack, Gayles’ distinctive style has taken him to varied and esteemed corners of the fine art and illustration world. His design work for NBC news in New York earned him an Emmy, and he’s illustrated work for the New York Times, McGraw-Hill, Random House, Essence Magazine, Black Enterprise magazine, and others, and his work as a fine artist has been displayed at national and international institutions.
A resident of Oakland since 1980, he moved to Reno in 2020 at the behest of his daughter Dr. Prisca Gayles, an assistant professor of Gender, Race, Identity, and Sociology at the University of Nevada Reno, after a shooting outside of his apartment. Soon after he arrived, he immersed himself in the local arts scene by joining organizations and setting up showings.
“When I got here, I immediately sought out the artist community,” Gayles said. “I asked around, you know, the who’s who, and I joined a few organizations: the Sierra Watercolor Society, the Sierra Arts Foundation, and the Latimer Art Club.”
He said that the organizations and venues he approached were all very receptive, and soon his art was on display in local establishments like Shim’s Surplus Speakeasy, the Renaissance Hotel and Casino, and Reno Art Works—where he also rents his current studio space. He was also welcomed onto the teaching roster at the Sierra Arts Academy and has taught two watercolor courses so far.
“I’m hoping to teach more at the new Public Market,” Gayles said. “The Makers Paradise … they’re setting up a whole thing there … I think the watercolor society is moving their offices in there.”
Gayles’ newest artistic venture in the Biggest Little City is taking place at the Savage Mystic Gallery throughout December. The exhibition is called James Gayles: 50 Years of Artistic Expression, and it features both preexisting works from Gayles’ archives and original works made especially for the new show.
“It’s going to cover women and musicians, realism and expressionism,” Gayles said. “There should be about 30 pieces in all.”
Those few nouns are perhaps the clearest and most apt description of Gayles’ style and preferred subjects. Gayles is drawn to portrait work specifically featuring people of color in response to experiences of having his own culture taken away or distorted growing up as a Black child in the 1950s. In his own words, “This led to the development of an inferiority complex during that period of my life. Subsequently I am subconsciously drawn to the cultures of African cultures and people of the African Diaspora.”
His quest for a cultural identity often leads to him using photos as reference material and either rendering them true-to-life with realistic color palettes or incorporating abstract or expressionist elements with vibrant colors that subvert the sometimes muted palettes of traditional watercolor work.
“Usually, when I see a good photo, it inspires me,” Gayles said. “I work out of a National Geographic book a lot because I’m drawn to a lot of tribal African women and tribal Asians, and Native Americans. I’m very inspired by the face, you know. I like the face, I like people. So, when I see a photo that can convey the spirit of the person, and the intensity of their spirit, I like to paint those.”
Gayles’ inspiration in the fine details is something he teaches his students as well. In his words, he teaches them how to express the emotion of their subjects through the eyes. Many of his subjects are women and people of color, including homages to celebrities and musicians, and when he dabbles in other subject matter, his eye is drawn to equally specific traits.
“Well let’s see, I’ve done a lot of pets,” he said. “For the Sierra Water Color Society, I’m on the Challenge Committee, so I make challenges for the rest of the painters to do, and the challenge was something white. So, I painted a white iris. I like flowers too. That was one of my first paintings of flowers. And I’m getting ready to do sea turtles too because they’re interesting.”
Reno has afforded Gayles new opportunities and places to share his work, including working with his daughter on a year-long GRI initiative of a series of events discussing racial justice and food security regarding climate change. Gayles supplied the department with two paintings as the official artwork for the series, including an original titled “Ms. Food Justice.”
His new show at the Savage Mystic will be his most expansive in Reno to date, and after that he plans to keep getting his work out in the local community. In the meantime, Gayles is keeping a lookout for other artists of color in town as part of his wish to make Black art more visible.
“Well, when I first came here and started talking to other artists I asked them if they knew any other Black artists, you know, they just kinda hesitated,” Gayles said. “They couldn’t really come up with anyone.”
Gayles is quick to recognize local muralist Joe C. Rock as another African American artist whose work has made and continues to make a big impression in the community. Eventually, he hopes there will be plenty more names to add to the list, and that his art can be a source of inspiration to that end. On his website, Gayles articulates his vision for what his work represents:
“I am committed to cultivating artists, liberating experiences of the African and Black Diaspora through art and sharing my work with the world. My vision is to put beautiful, uplifting, and enlightening work out in the world and to inspire young and upcoming artists. I see art as a vehicle to educate, by portraying ancestral icons who youth and all people can be proud of and admire.”
James Gayles: 50 Years of Artistic Expression is on view at Savage Mystic Gallery through Dec. 31 with a reception from 4-8 pm Dec. 16.
Images of artwork are courtesy of James Gayles.