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    Auction Finds

    James Drake Iams’ story behind an early painting

    The image looked decidedly familiar. It was a watercolor of a 1920s car in a door-less garage, its wide rear end and inflated tire exposed to me. The car was on one side of the garage, and a wheelbarrow and other items were to the right of it.

    It took me back to another old vehicle I had seen parked in a shed last December – that one attached to an old barn that towered over it. The vehicle had been a truck, perhaps a 1940s Ford whose rear end I had also spied as I approached it while driving along a country highway in Georgia.

    Both of the vehicles were from another time, when cars were bulky and not sleek, were harder to come by if you were poor, and were a lot more clunkier to drive.

     James Drake Iams watercolor

    An up-close view of the Model A car in the garage in the James Drake Iams’ 1962 watercolor.

    I loved the countrified feel of this painting, which was hanging on a cluttered wall at the auction house. Not countrified in the sense that there was something inferior about the unseen people who lived in the space of that painting, but in its tranquility. Its cool greens and grays expressed a sense of restfulness, as if the car and the tools were taking a break, waiting for their next outing. The artist’s attention to detail – the license plate on the car, the front seat seen through the rear window, the planks of wood propped on the side of the building – was also striking.

    In fact, I had even bought a lithograph two years ago with the same sort of feeling. Like that one, I loved this painting, and knew I wanted to take it home. I also was curious about the artist, and found his name as usual in the lower right corner.

    “James Drake Iams” and the year “62.”

    I wondered if this old building ever existed and if so, where was it located. What were the circumstances that compelled Iams to paint it? I’m always curious about the artwork I buy at auction and the artists behind them.

    James Drake Iams watercolors

    The signature of artist James Drake Iams and the year of the watercolor.

    Googling, I learned that Iams was known more for his watercolors of sailboats on the Chesapeake Bay than old buildings inland. I suspected that the painting was one of his earliest works. According to bios on the web, he was born in 1927 and was a public school teacher for 32 years. A native of Pennsylvania, he graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and has graduate degrees from Pennsylvania State University and the Maryland Institute of Art.

    He has been painting scenes of the Eastern Shore of Maryland since the 1950s (these scenes, too, are tranquil). An “avid sailor,” as one site noted, his paintings included geese and ducks, sailboats and historic ships, along with “workboats associated with the Chesapeake Bay such as skipjacks and ‘drake tail’ and landscapes of Maryland scenes and of his travels.”

    According to his website, he is a member of the American Watercolor Society, the American Society of Marine Artists and the Baltimore Watercolor Society. His works are in the collections of galleries and private hands, and he has exhibited in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington.

    He has also published two books “Bayside Impressions” (1983) and “Painting the Eastern Shore” (1999).

    James Drake Iams watercolor

    A James Drake Iams watercolor. A photo of Iams is in the upper left. Photos from the artist’s website.

    All of his works I found on the web were watercolors of Eastern Shore subjects. One site noted that he painted towns and villages along the water.

    These bits of bio didn’t tell me enough about him as an artist, and I was still curious about the painting. So I dug deeper into Google and found a recent article that told me of his whereabouts. He’s living in a retirement community in Timonium, MD, and is still painting and loving it.

    So I contacted Iams and sent him a photo of the painting. Here’s his story about the watercolor I bought at auction, along with responses to some other questions I asked.

    James Drake Iams watercolor

    A full view of the James Drake Iams watercolor I bought at auction.

    Iams’ response to photo:

    The watercolor is of a garage belonging to my neighbor Henry LeBrun. We were living next door in a frame red house, one house away from Bellona Ave on west Seminary Ave on the north side. We had a similar old two car garage but I believe the painting is Henry’s garage. I probably sketched the scene and then painted it. I may have added the car but I don’t think so, it was the Model A Ford in the garage that attracted me to the scene. Both garages are still there, I believe. You have a nice early Iams watercolor! (in the 60s).


    What town were you living in at the time you painted this scene? Was it Lutherville, MD? (I had read that he had lived in Lutherville.)


    We were living in Lutherville, MD, 21093.


    Were you also painting watercolors of Chesapeake Bay at the time or did that come later?


    I have been painting Chesapeake Bay watercolors since I moved here after the Army in 1952.


    What was it about this particular scene that made you want to paint it?


    The scene had charm, good darks and lights, and I like old cars.


    You mentioned that you may have added the car but you don’t think so. I’m not clear on what you mean.


    The garage may not have had a car in it, I believe it did. The car and garage made a great composition.


    I Googled the name Henry LeBrun. Is he the one who was associated with the Boys Latin School?


    Henry LeBrun sold real estate, and was connected to Boys Latin.


    When did you first start painting?

    James Drake Iams watercolors

    Two Chesapeake Bay watercolors by James Drake Iams: “Winter Wait,” at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut (left) and “Cutts Case Boat,” at Coos Art Museum in Oregon (right).


    I was born with a pencil in my hand and began watercolor while in college. I could draw very well in grade school.


    I understand that you were a high school art teacher? Where and for how long?


    I taught at Towson High School 28 years (in Towson, MD), and was with Baltimore County 32 years.


    When did you become a professional artist and what led to you painting full time?


    I have always sold my watercolors, and I guess could be considered professional since I acquired a sales tax number in the mid-50s. It is hard to remember.


    Some stories about you on the web put your birth year as 1927. Is that correct? How old are you now?


    I am 87. A 60-year career in watercolor.

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    1. I was a student of Mr. Iams in the early 60’s at Towson High School. I graduated from the Maryland Institute in 1967 with a degree in art education. I retired in 2014, after teaching elementary and middle school students for 40 years. I am now able to spend more time painting in watercolors having been influenced by Mr. Iams. I wish that I could still be his student since I love the medium and have become a better learner! He was such a wonderful teacher and always called me “Zimmie.” My happiest times in high school were spent in his art room, and I will always be grateful for his guidance, warmth, and sense of humor. You are very lucky to have one of his paintings, Sherry.

      • Yes, I consider myself very lucky to have this painting by Mr. Iams. It’s one of my favorites in my collection.

        • Sherry,
          I realize this is a post from October 2015, so not sure if you’ll see my reply. I just happened upon your site because I was googling James Drake Iams, curious as what he’s been painting recently. I have one of his original watercolors, and also a signed print of another watercolor.

          Like Carol, I was a student of his at Towson High School, but in the early 70’s. His classes were also my favorite – I would have spent all day in them, if allowed. I remember where he lived in Lutherville, and there are still homes and garages there that are evocative of your painting. Ironically, the other two paintings you’ve featured in this post are both very familiar to me.

          “Winter Wait” is of a tugboat in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, near Fells Point. My late husband and I lived close by there for about 15 years. The original watercolor I own is of a Baltimore tugboat – my husband loved them. The other painting you show, “Cutts and Case Boat” was painted at the boatyard owned by friends of mine, and is less than a block away from where I live now. I pass the boatyard nearly every day.

          I also own a signed print of a log canoe “Island Blossom”. Log canoes are beautiful wooden sail boats unique to the Chesapeake Bay. Few are left, most are quite old – in another ironic twist, I discovered shortly after moving here that the real Island Blossom has her maintenance done yearly at another boatyard a half block from me in the other direction. And she is sailed regularly each summer in the log canoe races here.

          I loved your Q & A with him – a small world, it seems. Your painting is a wonderful treasure, as are all of his works, in my opinion!

          • Thanks so much for your stories about the two other paintings. It was a joy corresponding with Mr. Iams. He’s a wonderful painter.

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