KENANSVILLE — While the primary colors and shadows would be filled in later, the outline and shape of Jim Sanders life was sketched at an early age, when he first put pencil to paper and brought to life the images of his boyhood heroes.
“I knew when I was pretty young that I enjoyed drawing,” remembered Sanders, during a recent interview. “When I was four or five years old I remember drawing a picture of a soldiers head. It was something that just came naturally to me, I guess.”
The Duplin County native said he was first inspired by the Tarzan of the Apes comic books of his childhood, specifically the work of illustrator Hal Foster. Sanders said he was also inspired by the comic book and action heroes of the early-fifties, such as The Lone Ranger, Lash Larue, and Buck Rogers, larger than life figures that would follow him across the years to be resurrected in his own, lovingly detailed portraits.
The mark of another early Sanders influence, his grandfather’s zoology books, can be seen in his wildlife drawings, which include stampeding elephants, crouched tigers and a variety of bird species.
Though Sanders said he began designing and illustrating before entering grade school, he remembered first taking art lessons in fifth grade, after his family moved to Rose Hill. “Teachers were always calling on me to draw if they needed something illustrated on the blackboard,” said Sanders.
As a senior at Wallace-Rose Hill High School in 1958, Sanders was chosen to draw a portrait of the school’s principal, Byron Teachey. A newspaper article from the time notes Sanders “skill and mastery of the art of drawing and tinting.” The articles author expresses his hope that Sanders “will continue along this path throughout life.”
The drawing of the portrait would prove to be one of many examples throughout the years of seemingly incidental events that would lead Sanders farther down that already chosen path. After a recruiter from East Carolina University saw the Teachey portrait, he recommended Sanders for the school’s art program. Sanders would go on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from ECU, graduating in 1963.
With the Vietnam War beginning to heat up, Sanders said he remembered too late to file for a college deferment from the draft. Taking matters into his own hands, Sanders decided to enlist in the Air Force. “They wanted to make me a pilot but they found out I have a poor sense of direction, which is common among a lot of artists,” Sanders recalled.
Grounded by his superiors, Sanders’ artistic ability would again prove to be a saving grace. “It got around that I had an art degree, so they decided to make me an illustrator.”
While in the Air Force he would win first place in an art competition that included all the Strategic Air Command Bases.
Having left the Air Force in 1965, Sanders took a job at a printing company in Raleigh before coming back to Duplin County to teach art and graphic design at James Sprunt Community College, helping to initiate the program which is still part of the school’s curriculum.
After a brief return to Raleigh to work for an ad agency, Sanders took a job as a graphic designer and illustrator with Carolina Power and Light, finding an outlet for his talents that would highlight his skill for detailed portrait work.
“I worked on a company magazine called Spotlight. Every month it would feature one of the company employees and I would do a drawing of them to go along with the story.”
After an influx of appreciative mail, Sanders himself was featured in the magazines “Spotlight” section.
Sanders also illustrated various informative booklets and periodicals for the company. During his time at CP&L, he would win numerous national and international graphic design and illustration awards.
One of the more improbable events in Sanders’ life occurred shortly after September 11, 2001. Following the tragic events of that day, Sanders began producing a series of prints depicting eagles in flight. A friend of Sanders who purchased several of the eagle prints happened to be a government employee who, shortly afterwards, attended a meeting in Washington D.C. that included then Vice-President Dick Cheney. Having glimpsed the prints in the man’s briefcase, Cheney expressed his admiration for the work, and was presented with the two pieces as a gift. Several weeks afterwards, Sanders received a hand-delivered robe with the Presidential Seal and Air Force One embroidered on it. Two days later an official thank you came from the Vice-President.
Apart from his work with CP&L, Sanders has also done illustrations for a number of magazines. Some of his earliest magazine work came about through his memories of a shy, awkward teenager who was determined to improve himself. “I was always a skinny kid in high school. I was 5’4, 114 pounds. So I decided to order a weight set from the York Bar Bell Company. By the time I graduated I was 5’9 and weighed 145 pounds.”
Years later, in 1971, Sanders would contact the company again, sending them illustrations of the famed body builders of the day. Duly impressed with Sanders’ talent, the magazine began giving him regular assignments. As a result, his work was featured in magazines such as Strength and Health and Muscular Development, and on York training charts from 1971 to 1986.
In the mid-1980s, Sanders illustrated the book, Bodybuilders Bible. In 1986 he was invited to attend an awards banquet honoring the “King of Bodybuilders,” John Grimek. Noting the enthusiastic reaction Sanders received from a painting he presented to Grimek, banquet officials named Sanders the official artist of the American Association of Body Builders (AOBS). Sanders would go on to produce and present portraits of more than 60 AOBS honorees.
In a portrait of a famed body builder who overcame an addiction to alcohol, Sanders sketched a subtle image of a phoenix behind his subject, a technique that has become a calling card of his portrait work. “I like to hide little things in my work that have something to do with the person,” said Sanders, pointing out the image of a crocodile hidden in the portrait of a subject from Louisiana and the outline of a physicians symbol, the caduceus, faintly visible in his depiction of the Biblical character, Luke.
Since retiring from CP&L in 1997, Sanders has remained busy in the art world. Now living in Garner with his wife, Carol, Sanders concentrates mainly on colored pencil art. “It’s more an extension of drawing than painting is,” he said of the technique. “You can get really incredible detail.”
As proof of his colored pencil skills, Sanders points to recent portraits of movie legends John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Lash LaRue, work that stems from his love of classic western movies. As a farther extension of his passion, Sanders has also become a member of the Western Film Preservation Society in Raleigh.
Sanders currently teaches colored pencil classes in Cary three days a week. He continues to do commissioned portraits and freelance work for various publications and is a member of several art associations, including the Arts Guild of Greater Garner and the Colored Pencil Society of America.
“I’m staying busy,” he commented, “almost busier than ever.”
In 2003 Sanders was a guest of honor at the Rose Hill Chamber Banquet, where he was joined by his former art teacher, Margaret Cooper.
According to Sanders, artistic talent runs in the family. His two sons, Allen and John, have shown a facility for cartoons and wildlife art and his three granddaughters are also interested in drawing. “It’s something in the genes, maybe,” he remarked.
One of his proudest accomplishments, said Sanders, has been having his artwork featured in several museums across the country. He currently has work on display at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia and the University of Texas Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.
“I have art in two museums and I’m still alive, so I consider myself pretty lucky,” said Sanders.
Locally, Sanders’ art can be seen in the form of a portrait of Owen Kenan at Liberty Hall and a painting of the Country Squire statue that hangs in the restaurant’s foyer.
From his early days of studying the work of his favorite comic book artists to his current role as teacher and respected artist, Sanders said the details of his life have often played out as if directed by a skilled, subtle hand. “I’ve always been pretty laid back and quiet; things just happened along the way. I’ve had a little bit of fame, and not much fortune, but I’ve had a lot of fun.”