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  1. Life & Culture

After 70 years of creativity, painter has mastered the art of living

If it's retirement, it's a most active one.

Nearing 90, Janice James still paints with the gusto she brought to her art at the beginning of her career.

She and her husband, Bill, 88, moved from St. Petersburg to Sun City Center, an age-restricted retirement community in southern Hillsborough County, in 2004, and the idea was to slow down. Judging by her output since then, she has not.

The Jameses were prominent St. Petersburg residents for more than 40 years, raising three now-grown daughters before they decamped to Sun City Center. He was president of Florida National Bank, now Wells Fargo, and she was active in numerous civic and social organizations.

She was best known, though, as a painter. She used her talent mostly to document, in lovely watercolor works, historic and scenic sites such as the Vinoy and the Snell Isle Bridge. The original landscapes were often translated into note cards that were sold in local shops. If the work pictured a nonprofit institution such as the Museum of Fine Arts, she would donate the use of the painting. She did a lot of gratis work for organizations in which she was involved as a volunteer.

Janice James (her first name is pronounced jaNEES) also was sought after by many people to paint pictures of their homes.

"They were often gifts," she said, "for Christmas. One October, I had nine commissions. I learned to work fast."

The couple met at the University of Miami, where she studied art and he studied business.

"I sat next to her in an art history class," Bill said. "But we didn't date. I thought she was stuck-up."

"I was shy," Janice said.

But circumstances kept them in each other's presence; she banked where he was a teller and they saw each other on a local golf course every Saturday. They married in 1955.

He moved up the corporate ladder while she worked full time as a commercial illustrator "until the kids came along. I would freelance when they were sleeping."

In 1972 he was recruited to head up Florida National in St. Petersburg and she turned from commercial to fine art for a pleasure that evolved into a second career.

She was an early creative bloomer, taking up painting when she was 9.

"My mother knew of a watercolor teacher and she had me paint our house," she said, which was the beginning of her interest in landscapes as her subjects. As an adult, she did occasional portraits but stopped because "a portrait is so personal. People don't recognize what they really look like."

What many people don't know about her is that she is a master seamstress and tailor.

"My mother taught me to sew and cut patterns," she said. "When I was 25, I won $500 in a dress design contest. I made my wedding dress and bridesmaids' dresses."

She once made a suit for her husband and sewed dresses for her daughters through the years. And she continues to sew.

"I shop at Sun City Center's Nearly New shop and make over the clothes," she said, citing as an example a smart tuniclike top she recently wore that she had refashioned from a dated coatdress.

She's not averse to a new challenge, either. Several months ago, she took a class in acrylic painting, a medium in which she had never worked, to prepare for a mural commission from a neighbor because watercolor is too delicate for a wall. She spent several weeks on a ladder in the home's dining room creating a pastoral Florida scene of water, trees and birds. Before that, and also on a ladder, she applied a similar treatment to an 8-foot soffit in her kitchen.

As with portraits, she said she's done with acrylic after the brief experiment.

"I prefer the sheer of watercolor."

The couple plays golf several times a week, he's reading a lot more, "mostly history," and she's making a new group of paintings for an art show in February, spending most days in her studio.

"I'm retired," Bill James said, "but she's still working."

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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