Portraits of the American South

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Robert Noles/Opelika Observer

Opelika artist prides himself on creating relatable art

By Morgan Bryce
Staff Reporter

Using a paintbrush, blank canvas and a little imagination, Opelika resident and painter James Brantley has spent more than 60 years capturing the people, places and wildlife of the South.
Known best for his watercolor paintings, Brantley’s works have won numerous awards, including the 1993 Alabama Waterfowl Art Contest, and a Best of Show at the Watercolor Society of Alabama’s 72nd Annual National Exhibition in 2013. He said that the relatability of his art has been one of the key components to his success.
“I can only paint what I know. I know the South, I know the Southern people and the Southern lifestyle,” Brantley said. “I think that’s why people are attracted to the kind of work I do.”
Brantley said his interest in art was sparked by his mother, who often drew portraits of him and his siblings when they were children.
At six years of age, Brantley started drawing pictures of his favorite cartoon characters Goofy and Mickey Mouse. In high school, he said he pored through books and magazines containing illustrations of works by classic artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt van Rijn and Leonardo da Vinci, attempting to mimic their brush strokes and discover how to replicate the reality found in their paintings.
After graduating from Sidney Lanier High School in 1963, Brantley chose to go to art school at Auburn, where he said he expected to learn how to paint like his heroes.
“In college, that was the late 60s or early 70s, it was all about the kinds of art like Jackson Pollock where you just splash paint, or put big squares on a blank canvas, and everybody would just gather around and call it art. However, I wanted to learn to paint realistically like Michelangelo or Rembrant did,” Brantley said. “There was nobody there to tell me, so I just figured it out on my own.”
Following college, Brantley started his career as an art teacher, working in several Alabama and Georgia cities before coming to Opelika in 1980.
It was during his 18-year tenure at Opelika High School that Brantley said he began to take his art seriously, entering his works in various art competitions. He said the early feedback was often negative and harsh, but eventually, found a breakthrough.
“I always thought I had a pretty good amount of talent, but everyone was telling me I didn’t. But I remember a show in Panama City (Beach) where I entered a watercolor of a little girl, and won honorable mention, which was my first prize, and I was so proud,” Brantley said. “That’s when I thought to myself, ‘maybe I’m not so bad after all.’”
Now, Brantley is a member of several prestigious watercolor societies, and has samples of his work in public and private collections across Alabama and the United States.
Since retiring from OHS in 1998, Brantley has taught art classes at Southern Union State Community College, Jordan High School in Columbus, Ga., and now teaches part time at Trinity Christian School.
Brantley is currently working on a project that he plans on entering in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest in August, which will pit him against the nation’s best artists. Coming off a seventh-place finish last year, he said he is excited for his chances to win this year’s competition.
For more information on Brantley and to see examples of his work, visit www.jamebrantley.net, or follow his Facebook page, James Brantley Fine Art.

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