James Bama, a nationally regarded painter, died in Cody, Wyoming, recently, four days short of his 96th birthday. I regret being out of touch with him for most of the last 14 years since I moved to Idaho.
Jim was certainly a friend, though he was a man with a lot of friends, and he just as easily drew a crowd at the grocery store or on the streets of Cody as he could at a ritzy arts event at one of the town’s many galleries or the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. I mostly saw him at the Cody Public Library, where we shared a penchant for reading free newspapers.
His much younger wife, Lynne, was — like me — a freelance writer, regularly spending time researching her pieces in the library, and since they were inseparable, Jim always tagged along. Lynne’s and my work both occasionally appeared in High Country News and in their op-ed newspaper syndicate “Writers on the Range” (the latter since defunct). Jim once jokingly introduced me to someone by saying, “This is Bill. He and my wife commiserate about their miserable, ink-stained lives.”
James Elliott Bama was born in New York City on April 28, 1926. He had an early enthusiasm for drawing, copying comic strips from newspapers. This precocious talent got him accepted at the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. At 15 he sold his first work, a drawing of an aerial photo of Yankee Stadium that appeared in the Sporting News and earned him $50.
In 1944, at 18, Jim enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was trained as a navigator, though World War II ended before he could be deployed overseas. Luckily, he qualified for the G.I. Bill and studied at the famed Art Students League in New York, where he honed his skills as an illustrator. Jim later joined the Charles E. Cooper Studio and did paintings for the Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, and Dell and Bantam paperback books. He illustrated all 62 covers for the latter’s popular “Doc Savage” series.
Jim and Lynne, newly married, visited Cody for the first time in 1966, when they vacationed at a local dude ranch. Two years later they moved to Wyoming, buying a house in Wapiti, a few miles west of Cody. There Jim slowly made the transition from illustrator to fine artist.
In 1973, Jim had his first one-man show at New York’s Hammer Gallery, which was followed in 1977 by another show at the noteworthy Coe Kerr Gallery. Of the latter, a critic from ARTnews wrote that “Bama paints heroes of the contemporary American West…. He takes the true stuff of American myth, Olympian figures of a dying past, and reinstates them in our cultural consciousness.”
Bama’s paintings, mostly portraits, have many times been mistaken by viewers to be photographs. This was a tribute to his photo-realistic skill as a master of Norman Rockwell–like detail. From facial and anatomical nuances and those of dress, horse tack, and firearms, every minute feature jumped off the canvas. Jim worked off photographs, and there are 55,000 extant.
“I’ve been taking pictures out here for almost forty years,” Bama told an interviewer in 2014. “I’ve got a record of all the oldtimers: a guy who drove a stagecoach; the oldest living Arapaho Indian, who was in Tim McCoy’s Wild West Show and performed in front of Queen Victoria…. I caught a lot of these people when they were in their 90s. And Robert Yellowtail, who was a famous Crow Indian Chief. I got them not only in my artwork, but in the photography.” And the latter could be a show in itself.
Over the years Jim supported numerous public causes by donating valuable copied prints to youth organizations and other charities, including toward the construction of the Cody Recreation Center. A print of the late Bob Edgar dressed in his usual cowboy garb benefitted Old Trail Town, a tourist attraction in Cody that consisted of historically accurate Western buildings and artifacts painstakingly constructed and collected by Edgar himself. Proceeds from another went to the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana. Bama portrayed Native Americans dressed in traditional costume in many of his paintings.
I’ve heard that in his last years Jim’s eyesight failed to the point that he couldn’t paint. After a lifetime of great work, he seemed to take this in stride.
Just this past February Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon bestowed on Bama the annual Governor’s Arts Award for 2022. Retired Sen. Alan Simpson was among those who lobbied for it on Jim’s behalf.
In an appreciation piece accompanying Jim’s obituary in the Cody Enterprise, Al Simpson said it best. He remembered the artist telling him: “I’m here because I want to be in the West…. I’m here to prove I can have a great life.”
And so he did.
Bill Croke is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.