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James Tracy
Magical Realist

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James Tracy

James Tracy
Magical Realist

by Rachel Perry

Readers of Our Brown County recognize James Tracy's name from the magazine's creatively illustrated covers. The fine arts world was reminded in June that illustrations and graphic design are not Mr. Tracy's only pursuits. At the twenty-second annual Indiana Heritage Arts juried exhibition, all three of Mr. Tracy's submitted oil paintings were accepted and received merit awards.

His winning landscapes included "Along Salt Creek," a monochromatic snowy winter creek scene; "In the Pines," a back-lit design using silhouetted pine trees; and "A Quiet Time," depicting roof tops in Nashville. The latter painting is a view from Mr. Tracy's studio on the top floor of Nashville's Village Green building.

At first glance, the paintings of James Tracy appear to be peaceful scenes of familiar places, rendered with great technical expertise. Upon closer examination, the light and shadows in the scenes convey a melancholy mood reminiscent of works by Andrew Wyeth. The familiar and the recognizable both appear in a new light and become mysteriously transformed.

After creating abstract collages in high school and being encouraged by Columbus art teacher Carl McKann, Mr. Tracy became interested in Salvador Dali's surreal style of exploring the world of the unconscious. Several paintings on Mr. Tracy's studio walls reflect his earlier emphasis. "I used to do things that were based on total imagination. . . . You know how artists often want to do a series of the four seasons. I wanted to combine the four seasons with four self-portraits," he said, indicating a painting of overlapping images.

After experimenting with surrealism he got more into realism. Mr. Tracy explains, "But I don't want to do normal landscapes—I like to have a certain amount of mystery in my paintings."

Unlike many realist artists, James Tracy uses a combination of real subjects and his imagination. "I think of a scene that inspires me and then go looking for similar scenes to photograph," he reveals. "Sometimes I dream paintings."

"I don't really have a system [for painting]," he says. "I know a lot of artists do that but I don't want my paintings to be systematic in any way. I want each one to be a discovery."

Although he has used oil paint exclusively for the past ten years, his medium as well as his message, is subject to change. "I'm not sure oils are really my thing," Mr. Tracy remarked. "I'm thinking about getting into watercolors." He tends to use many thin layers of paint to achieve his desired effect. "I use paint thinner and drying oils because I want the paint to dry faster."

Although born in Nashville, James Tracy has lived and worked in other places. He moved to Albuquerque in the late 1980's where he attended art classes at the University of New Mexico. He then moved to Los Angeles where he sought employment. "I had three different jobs when I was out there" he laughed. The first job was creating huge wall-size background paintings. "They were rented out for commercial backgrounds. It was the hardest work I've ever done because these things weigh hundreds of pounds. People [potential clients] would come to look at the murals and we would bring them out, lay them on the floor and unroll them. Then the person would say, `Nah, let's see the other one again.'

"Then I got a job as a display artist for Tower Records. It was kind of fun. . . . After that I worked as a T-shirt artist in the garment district. It was like being in a third world country. Then I decided, `I hate all this smog,' so I returned to Indiana University to finish my fine arts degree."

Employed by Accurate Graphic Industries for the past eight years, Mr. Tracy now designs graphics for imprinted and embroidered sportswear lines. He has recently deepened his Brown County roots by purchasing ten acres on Gilmore Ridge where he plans to build a house/studio.

Mr. Tracy spends about twenty hours per week painting. "Since I make a living from graphic design, it cuts into my painting time and I haven't really entered that many shows," he explains. His paintings are selling, however, and do well when entered in competitions. "The Joy Farm," another Brown County scene, won "Best Traditional Painting in any Media" in the 1997 Hoosier Salon.

In the tradition of many early Brown County artists, James Tracy pursues his creative potential through fine art while making his living as an illustrator and graphic designer. His solid background and experience in all aspects of art serve to enhance the magic of his realism.

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