ST. PETERSBURG — The point wasn't to teach art, but to teach artists.
What James Crane wanted in his three decades at Eckerd College, he said, was to nurture "more aware and more human humans," to free art students to discover themselves.
That's the mission with which he shaped the college's art department from his arrival in 1963. Former colleagues said his wit and spirit, embodied in a half-century of artwork and teaching, remain today.
"I think if anybody could be said to be our founding father, it would be Jim," said Arthur Skinner, a former student who took over Eckerd's art department when Crane retired in 1993. "He was our visionary-in-residence."
James G. Crane, a cartoonist, painter, collage artist and teacher, died in hospice Nov. 8 after two years of declining health. He was 88.
Born in Oklahoma in 1927, Mr. Crane grew up a displaced Southerner in Michigan, a self-admitted academic flop and the last picked for softball on the playground. In those Depression years, he got a dime a week allowance and helped his dad with work at a gas station.
He joined the service as World War II drew to a close, working the midnight shift as a military police officer. He thought about dropping out, but channeled his frustration into cartooning anti-re-enlistment posters that he hung in the barracks. Even his commanding officer was a fan.
"The posters were first and foremost an assertion of my own humanity," he wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in 1965. "In the great Army of the United States in which my life was organized for me as completely as a tomatoes in a canning factory, I needed to know who I was. I needed to say who I was."
A cartoonist, he said, was a "wounding jester," a wolf in sheep's clothing, able to use the deceptively simple form to relay otherwise unwelcome truths.
"Art requires a Sunday suit, and we can read the comics in our pajamas," he wrote.
His tragicomic cartoons were published in books and religious magazines such as motive and Ave Maria. They prodded at disconnection, war, cruelty — a fragmented society.
In one cartoon, two big-eyed people hold hands atop a world cracked in half and sewed back together. One holds a hammer, the other a ball of string. The caption: "Do you suppose it will heal?" They look uncertain.
"As Crane sees the world," an Associated Press review said in 1967, "it's out of joint, badly cracked, often penalizing goodness, flawed by human self-centeredness, yet craving love, and trying, clumsily, to cultivate it."
Mr. Crane's paintings and abstract collages complemented his cartoons with "quieter introspection of mystical worlds," the Times' art critic wrote in 1969.
He put on a white shirt, suit and tie before heading to work each morning at Florida Presbyterian College, where he'd been recruited to help shape its fledgling department in the early 1960s. In 1972, the school became Eckerd College.
Mr. Crane, along with founding members Robert Hodgell and Margaret Rigg, established foundational courses and personal studio space for students. But it was Mr. Crane's vision that guided the department's essential philosophy. And his insightful humor, Skinner said, set his colleagues at ease.
"His wit could cut through a difficult situation like a beacon in the dark," he said.
Mr. Crane taught in a Socratic style, prodding his students to consider deeper themes. And his Visual Problem Solving course challenged students to use simple images (lines, symbols) within set limits. The solutions they found to transcend those limits led them to consider visual thinking in a new way.
"It's had a profound effect," Skinner said. "(Students) were really very inspired by it as a model for the creative process."
At home, when not surrounded by students, Mr. Crane patiently answered his children's questions as they watched him paint and sketch in his studio.
"It was almost magical," said his eldest daughter Lise Plattner.
Mr. Crane and his first wife, journalist Jeanette Crane DeGroot, had three children: Plattner, an attorney; Katie Evans, an educator; and J. Carey Crane, an artist.
"He would give me all the newsprint and pens and crayons and markers that I could possibly want, but he would not give me a coloring book," Carey Crane said.
His children remember him as wise, warm, sophisticated and boyish. His laugh filled a room.
"He was bigger than life," Evans said.
After he and Jeanette split, Mr. Crane danced with a woman named Heidi at a party in 1979. They made a lunch date for the next day. Sometimes they'd sit and talk so long that restaurants closed by the time they were ready for dinner. In 1982, they married.
Heidi Crane cared for her husband in his years of illness.
Mr. Crane had a close call in junior college. His appendix burst. Gangrene set in. He collapsed in a doctor's office. He told Plattner he remembers having a clear choice: to live or die. He chose to live.
Toward the end of his life, she visited him at his home in Treasure Island.
"I wanted to talk to you about deep and splendid things," he told her in a moment of lucidity. "I lived on borrowed time from something else, and I wouldn't give up a moment of it."
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.