Jim’s Impressions Of Reality
Sullivan’s Island artist Jim Darlington pursues people and places with his brush. By Sarah Nolan. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
Artist Jim Darlington comes to the door of his Sullivan’s Island studio in a paint speckled long sleeve t-shirt, palette and brush in hand. He is in the middle of touching up a canvas featuring a local church in so fly rendered oil paints. It’s something he says he does occasionally—revisits his works to retouch them, sometimes years after he first painted them. He mentions Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard, who used to do the same thing, even when his works had been bought or hung on display in a gallery. “Bonnard had one painting; he went in [the museum] and wanted to change something. Of course, this was back in the forties—you couldn’t do this now—but he went back home and got a little brush and some paint and hid it in his overcoat and got a friend of his to distract the guard while he touched it up!”
Darlington draws inspiration from Postimpressionist artists and other sources, many of which are pinned or taped up in his three-room studio. The walls are peppered with newspaper clippings, including a review of a Paul Gauguin retrospective, alongside art show ribbons he’s won from Charleston Artist Guild and South Carolina Oil Painting competitions, and articles featuring his band, Minimum Wage, for which he plays guitar. Literary figures also appear around the studio, including a quote by American novelist and naturalist Theodore Dreiser and photographs of fellow Sullivan’s Island creative, Edgar Allen Poe.
Darlington came to Sullivan’s in 1983, having grown up in a tobacco-farming town in northeastern South Carolina. His hometown has since become an important part of his identity. “My real name is Jim Brown, born in Darlington. When I first moved here and joined the Charleston Artist Guild there were [already] two Jim Browns in town who were painting. So, I took the name of my hometown, like El Greco and Caravaggio adopted the names of their birthplace.”
He has since spent his life immersed in the arts, working as a journalist and art critic, and then as a teacher. “When I first came here, I was an instructor at the Gibbes Museum. They had an art school for adults where I taught watercolor and oil painting during the late eighties and early nineties. The building where I taught is now Husk Restaurant,” he says with a chuckle. “When the Gibbes closed that school and we had a son, I decided I needed something a little steadier, so now I work with Charleston County School District at Windwood Farm out in Awendaw.” Te school schedule allows him generous amounts of time on the weekends and during summer to paint.
Darlington lives in a house he renovated from a repurposed nurse quarters that had been part of the old Moultrieville Hospital. He reflects on how the island has changed since he made it his home over thirty years ago. “Sullivan’s was a little bit different back then. It was before the connector and before the big bridges.” He lives with his wife Michal Baird, also a South Carolina native, and his son Baker Brown, now a senior at Clemson. The family loves the coastal lifestyle. “It’s a beautiful place. You don’t have to look around very hard for subjects.”
Of his landscapes, Darlington says, “I like to paint scenes characteristic of the Lowcountry of South Carolina. I usually begin a painting by applying large fat areas of color to a background, which is colored either red or dark umber. Sometimes I have composition in mind; other times I let the movement of the brush suggest forms. I build upon these forms, or change them, until I have a painting that conveys a certain mood, or an aspect of the landscape that I feel is authentic.”
Julie Cooke, owner of Sandpiper Gallery on Sullivan’s Island and Edward Dare Gallery in downtown Charleston, has represented Darlington for the past 15 years. “It has been such a pleasure watching his work ebb and flow in style, mood and composition,” Cooke says. “One characteristic of Darlington’s work that is a constant is that it has a bit of a primordial feel to it—the landscapes are wild, thick with underbrush and untouched. The moods he can capture with his o fen-sultry palette range from peaceful and serene to the feeling that all hell is about to break loose. The fact that his pieces are his impressions of reality, give you a peek into his mind and encourage you to make your own impressions of reality, allowing the viewer to be an active participant.”
One of Darlington’s oil on canvas paintings that was done completely on location, or in artistic terms en plein air, is Afternoon at Porpoise Point. The composition shows a softly lit red-roofed oceanfront house and crop of palmetto trees set against a muted seaside palette of blues and greens. The piece is one of Darlington’s many paintings that will be on display this summer at Sandpiper Gallery’s Timeless Island show, a one-man exhibition of Darlington’s art opening July 16, 2016.
“With plein air painting, when I spend the day in the sun and elements, I almost feel as if I own the subject I have painted or at least that I have ‘collected’ it,” he says. “It’s a very intimate experience.” Painting on the beaches of Sullivan’s Island can be a lovely experience for an artist, but it requires the eye and technique of an accomplished painter. “It amazes me the way plein air painters are able to capture their subjects with the ever-changing light when painting out on location,” Cooke says. “It takes so much skill, knowing the critical elements to capture quickly before the light changes, and to get it right immediately. It really exemplifies living in the moment—being present.”
Darlington is also a keen portraitist. “Sometimes I’ll get a sitter, or I will work with drawings I’ve done or portraits I began at the Gibbes. Since I play guitar, I like to do some guitar players.” he says. He o fen combines features from models and life sketches into one portrait, a technique that, according to his gallery, allows him to capture “a range of emotions—sometimes with subtle, fine brushwork and other times with strong palette knife work to add a dramatic, sculptural visual impact.”
Darlington took up sculpture recently and has already been featured at the City Gallery on the waterfront during the Spoleto Festival, the international performing arts festival that takes over Charleston every year in May. His technique is pottery, sculpted and baked, “then I paint them to look like a bronze patina.” The effect is a convincing version of a traditional bust, but with a gentler, more organic finish. “I always return to the human face… I’m trying to say what it means to be a human being living in the world… and all the ups and downs we have. I’m looking for a mood that the viewer can respond to.”