The West isn’t nearly as far away as you think.
Spend a few hours in St. Petersburg, at The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art and you’ll feel like you’ve landed in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and other western lands.
You’ll see paintings, life-size sculptures, sketches, jewelry, photographs and etchings depicting Native Americans, cowboys – and cowgirls. You’ll see vast, sultry landscapes, stampeding horses, and life as it was, and still is, in the West.
You’ll see wildlife art, too, in a museum building that is artistic itself, with mesa-like sandstone walls inside and out evoking the western landscapes. No one would guess that the building was once a plain-Jane parking garage.
Featuring 350 artworks and 100 pieces of jewelry, the permanent collection is one of the largest of its kind on exhibit in the country – in and beyond the American West.
Museum cofounders and sole supporters, Tom and Mary James, fell in love with Western art and began collecting 50 years ago. The art in the museum is just a sampling of their 3,000 pieces.
For years, some of their art was exhibited at Raymond James Financial headquarters in St. Petersburg, where Tom James, a St. Petersburg native, served as CEO for 40 years and is now chairman emeritus.
Now, the art is available for all to see in the 84,000-square-foot museum that opened in April, 2018, thanks to the James’s’ $75-million initial investment.
On the first floor, guests are greeted by larger-than-life sculptures. “Honeymoon at Crow Fair” features a newlywed Crow couple riding a horse in front of a two-story waterfall, the groom clutching a parasol. John Coleman, one of the museum’s stars, created it and other sculptures on the second floor.
Nearby, a Native American warrior sculpture by Dave McGary wears a bear headdress and a bear claw necklace, and wields a feathered shield.
A staircase leads to a second floor of more art of western peoples, landscapes, frontier life and a world of natural beauty. Visitors are lured up the stairs by a bronze sculpture called “The Wild’’ of frontiersmen Kit Carson and John Fremont riding a canoe through roiling waves.
Vast galleries feature paintings by the famous Taos Society of Artists — Ernest Blumenschein and others — who painted in the New Mexico town from 1915 to 1927.
There is priceless art by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington; Native American pottery, paintings and sculptures; contemporary Western paintings, and so much more.
Wooden benches allow visitors to sit quietly to contemplate the artworks and dream of another time, another place.
A museum favorite, a neo-surrealistic painting by Paul Pletka called “Red Talkers,” depicts Cheyenne men taking part in their Bull Society Dance. Some are painted with red and white stripes, their hands way larger than normal. One man clutches an American flag, while another’s stomach transforms into a swarm of bees swirling around a honeycomb.
A glass, octagonal room called The Jewel Box features Mary James’ Native American concho belts, rings, necklaces and bracelets. Some of the pieces are old, but most were created by living artists.
Another gallery is filled with wildlife paintings and sculptures of animals from around the world.
There’s a gallery for temporary exhibits, too.
A current exhibit showcases copper plate etchings by Santa Clara Pueblo artist Helen Hardin, which will be featured through March 1; and, a coming attraction features Blake Little’s photos of the gay rodeo circuit from 1988 to 1992, which will be on display from March 28 to June 20.
The museum also has a gift shop selling books, jewelry and other items. The Canyon Cafe, dazzling with an 1880s bar from San Francisco, offers a menu featuring a Bill Cody’s club wrap, a Hatch Chile cheeseburger and Red Rock donut bread pudding, among other Western-themed items.
Admission includes free, 45-minute tours. The “Highlights of the Collection” tour is offered Tuesday through Sunday at 1:30 p.m. The “Silver & Bold: The Art of Native American Jewelry” tour is Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m. To reserve a slot, get free tickets at the admission desk or gift shop on the day of your visit.
Group tours also are available, and a large events space can be rented for weddings, holiday parties, board meetings, conferences and other gatherings.
The museum also offers programs and events, such as live music, cooking classes, art talks, a book club, movies, kids’ playdates, sketch groups, art workshops — all described on the museum’s website.
Museum memberships offer all sorts of special rewards, too.
The biggest reward of all, though, is being able to see some of the best of The West, slightly more than an arrow shot away from Tampa Bay.
Tips for the Trip
The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art is at 150 Central Ave., in downtown St. Petersburg.
Parking is on Levels 3 and 4 of the South Core Parking Garage at 101 First Ave., S. The first hour is free and the charge is $1 an hour after that.
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays, when the hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Admission is $10 on Tuesdays. Other days, it is $20 for general admission; $15 for seniors over 65, military and students; and, $10 for those ages 7 to 18. Admission is free for children age 6 and younger.
Tickets can be purchased online at TheJamesMuseum.org.
By Karen Haymon Long
Published January 15, 2020