Artful Lives

Posted online: January 2018

The Jarvaise Family Legacy

Written By L.D. Porter Photographs By Sam Frost

It’s probably true that artists live more interesting lives than the rest of us. Despite the major challenges most creatives encounter—lack of financial security and the constant struggle for recognition—their lives just seem more glamorous and less boring than ours. Consider Santa Barbara painter James Jarvaise (1924-2015), who, while establishing an important body of his own work, mentored an entire generation of artists. Of equal importance was the inspiring way he led his life, a wholehearted embrace of creativity, culture, and family.

“He was the coolest guy ever,” says daughter Anna of her father. “Everything was just visual and aesthetic.” “Everything” included the Jarvaise family compound in Santa Barbara. Acquired in 1970 by James and wife Lorraine for their growing family (the couple had five children), the one-acre property boasts a cluster of three Spanish-style buildings, each with its own courtyard, garden patio, and fountain. Over time, James added creative touches everywhere: intricate tile work, stained glass windows, decorative fireplaces, antique wood doors, and, of course, his own large-scale artworks.

Anna (a painter) and her brother, Jean (an electrical engineer who does sculpture), currently live on the property with their partners and share fond memories of growing up in an artistically driven household. At one point, the front yard was planted with grapes so the family could make wine. “It wasn’t big enough to do anything major,” notes Jean, while admitting his father was serious enough to own a tractor. (Summers were spent in a tiny hilltop town in Spain, where the siblings remember milk being delivered to their home via donkey.)

Living a creative lifestyle is only a part of James’s story. He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, where his talent was recognized in elementary school. He was chosen to participate in art classes at Carnegie Tech, but his talent was put on hold during World War II while he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Following the war, James traveled to Paris where he met Japanese-American painter Matsumi (Mike) Kanemitsu. Both young men studied with renowned artist Fernand Léger, who “would show up once in awhile…and say something about everyone’s painting,” James recalled in an interview. (James and Kanemitsu remained friends, and the two ended up teaching together at Chouinard Art Institute—now CalArts—in Los Angeles.)

Returning from Europe, James pursued a fine arts degree in drawing and painting at USC (where he met future wife Lorraine) and also earned an MFA there. He then embarked on a teaching career that would span more than 30 years and several institutions (USC, Chouinard Art Institute, Occidental College, Oxnard College). Noted artists Robert Therrien and Henry Taylor are two former students who credit James as having an important influence on their work.

In 1959, James was included in “Sixteen Americans,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A number of other artists in the show—Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella—became household names. At the time, none other than legendary gallerist Peggy Guggenheim encouraged James to move to New York; and it’s generally agreed that had James relocated, the trajectory of his career would have been different. “He just didn’t want to do it,” says Jean. “He was raising his family here and so he opted to stay in California.” Adds Anna, “He didn’t like to self-promote.” 

Even so, James never stopped making and exhibiting art, and his work resides in museum collections throughout the United States, including Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum, New York’s MOMA, LACMA, and, closer to home, UC Santa Barbara’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum. Shortly before his death in 2015, James exhibited his collages at Louis Stern Fine Arts in Los Angeles. After viewing the show, art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp remarked, “The most youthful art that I have seen this month is produced by James Jarvaise, who is 91.” A fitting tribute to a supremely talented artist who lived life on his own terms, created beauty around him, and inspired others to do the same. 

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