Since Burt Reynolds spent $9,000 for a James Bama painting of a pretty camp cook and Jack Nicholson bought a Bama portrait of a wizened rancher for $4,500, citizens in the artist's home of Wapiti, Wyo. have been studying their profiles and cultivating their crowsfeet. "Even the guy in the produce department at the supermarket points to his wrinkles and says he'd be a good subject for me," Bama reports. But the artist did not move from Manhattan to Wyoming 12 years ago to find his cowboys and Indians at the Safeway.
Bama, whose oils fetch up to $50,000, looks for models at rodeos, at frontier parades and on the Arapaho, Shoshone and Cheyenne reservations. There is a well-defined hierarchy in the painter's work. "A portrait of an Indian chief," he notes, "sells for more than a brave or squaw, a historical Indian for more than a contemporary one, a mountain man for more than a cowgirl, and a guy with a beard for more than a guy without one."
Even so, he picks subjects for appropriateness, not price. "I want someone who tells a story of the West," he says. "They must look the part. If you painted Willie Mays out of uniform, it wouldn't tell a story." Subjects are paid $50 to $100 to pose for as long as an hour. Bama rarely presents them smiling. "I tend to look at Westerners from a sad point of view," he says. "The Indians dress up for a few days a year and try to relive their past. They do their dances, but it's not the same. They haven't just come back from a buffalo hunt or battle. And the rodeo is not glamorous. Cowboys get hurt. The riders often don't even get paid."
After studying dozens of photographs (Bama takes as many as 48 for each portrait, catching his subject in different poses), the artist does a pencil sketch on tissue paper for composition and a smaller sketch for color and background. Then Bama projects the photo he likes best onto a gesso panel and begins the actual drawing in pencil. Once he's satisfied with the proportions, he applies the color. Most of his works take from four to eight weeks. "The nature of what I do is slow," Bama admits. "Ninety percent of it is labor, craft."
Bama, 54, turned to art while growing up poor in Manhattan's Washington Heights section. His mother had a stroke when he was 13, and his father—a Russian-Jewish immigrant who sold housedresses—died of a heart attack a year later. The younger of two boys, James was assigned to do the shopping and cleaning for his mother. "With all the adversity," he says proudly, "I still played basketball. I was senior class president and won an athletic award at the High School of Music and Art." (Bess Myerson was in his Spanish class.) His mother died in 1944, the year he graduated.
After a semester at the City College of New York, Bama served in the Army Air Corps for 17 months. When he was discharged, he enrolled in the Art Students League under the GI Bill. "I painted Burt Lancaster's head, from a movie still, 26 times in different lighting," he recalls.
Graduating in 1949, he became one of Manhattan's top illustrators, eventually specializing in paperback book covers. He also did the billboard for the 1967 Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, a pennant for the New York Giants football team, six paintings for the Baseball Hall of Fame and two others for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1963 he met Lynne Klepfer, a weaver who later became a photographer. (Bama's first marriage to a sometime showgirl, Anthea Snyder, in 1956 lasted only nine months.) "I would show Lynne a finished book cover," Bama recalls, "and say, This pays $2,000.' And she would reply, 'Yes, but it's just like the one you did last year.' "
After they were married in 1964, she convinced him to go West and risk becoming a painter. Now he earns more than $100,000 a year and is expanding into etchings. From the picture window of his ranch home 20 miles west of Cody, Bama surveys the Shoshone River and the Absaroka Range to the south. The view to the north, which he sees from his studio, is dominated by the oddly named 10,000-foot Jim Mountain.
Lynne, 37, spends most of her time caring for their son, Benjamin, 3. "Having him is the greatest experience of our lives," says Bama. The artist sharpens his imagination with three hard physical workouts a day which include running two miles, boxing, calisthenics and "hustling all the kids I know at basketball." Still, he is obsessed by his work. "All of a sudden I'm painting for posterity," muses Bama, "making a statement about the things around me. Very few people get that chance. I'm just fortunate to be good enough."
'Rembrandt is my hero, and of course Norman Rockwell influenced me'