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Will James: Art & Writing

Will James seemed to be born with pencil and paper in hand. As young as age four, he could be found lying on the kitchen floor, scribbling on scraps of paper. Throughout his life, his art was his first love, and most of his art was drawn from his own life experience. He lived the life of the cowboy and the West, and documented that life in drawings left behind on bunkhouse walls, sketched in prison, or created in his studio for print publication.

Miss Nevada
Nevada Mustang
[Original Will James pencil sketches: Miss Nevada and The Nevada Mustang. Papers of Will James, Collection No. NC579, Series 8: Art work of Will James]

James's artwork was first purchased and published in popular magazines, including Sunset magazine in 1920, then later created to illustrate his own stories and books. When James met with Charles Dana Gibson, editor of Life magazine to discuss the possibility of publication of his work, Gibson was surprised to learn that James did not work from models. Rather, James explained that he was trying to draw true visual representations of life in the West, or in his words to "submit my own feelings in the sketches."

In a bad way
[Will James Illustration: In a Bad Way. Papers of Will James, Collection No. NC579, Series 8: Art work of Will James]

With the publication of his first self-illustrated collection of stories,Cowboys North and South, James explained his writing style: "What I've wrote in this book is without the help of the dictionary or any course in story writing. I didn't want to dilude what I had to say with a lot of imported words that I couldn't of handled. Good English is all right, but when I say something I believe in hitting straight to the point without fishing for decorated language." Among over 20 published books and numerous articles, Smoky, The Cow Horse stands out as one of James's best works (along with his autobiography, Lone Cowboy: My Life Story). Smoky was particularly important to James: although the book is a work of fiction, Smoky was based on a real horse, a large blue roan that would accept no rider but James during his cowboy days. While products of 1920s and 1930s with some attitudes that may seem out of date to the modern reader, James's stories and drawings still stand almost a century later for their vivid depictions of cowboys and horses—for their documentation of one piece of Nevada and the entire West's story.