The Art of Life
If former UD professor Jim Newton is seen by some as an African-American artist, he’d prefer to emphasize American and art.
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You can’t doodle your way through school, James.”
That was the admonition James Newton heard from his teachers at Irving Avenue Elementary School in Bridgeton, New Jersey.
Those teachers saw a bright but indifferent student. When young James wasn’t doodling, he was playing basketball or baseball or working in the surrounding farm fields, picking tomatoes, potatoes, beans, strawberries.
So the teachers made him the school cartoonist. Then, to help him find words for the dialogue balloons in his cartoons, they sent him to the library to increase his vocabulary. There, he took to books much like he had taken to crayons and paper.
“I liked books about the world, the Pyramids, the Egyptians,” says Newton, of Newark, the former head of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware. He also read the new works that came to the library, such as a biography of Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion. As his appreciation of books grew, a new world opened, and the indifferent student found a calling in academia. But first, Newton would have to deal with something else—his love for art, a love that went unrequited for many years.
After graduating from Bridgeton High in 1959, he joined the Army, which took him to Germany, where he looked on in awe at the lines of people waiting to enter art museums. “We didn’t have any museums anywhere near Bridgeton,” he says.
Then it was home again, to North Carolina Central University, where he earned a degree in art and German. He ran track—middle distance races—graduated cum laude and was eventually voted into his alma mater’s sports hall of fame.
But always there was the doodling. He doesn’t object to the word—he uses it himself. But it was truly art, all sorts of art: oil paintings he did in high school to make money on the side, caricatures of officers in his Army unit, portraits for German widows of their husbands, done from photographs.
He knew he was good, but how good? Granted, he couldn’t doodle his way through school, but could he doodle his way through life?
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