He reminds me of a gentle giant as he walks into the community centre where we meet. After resting his cane against the wall, Jim Adams settles his staggering height into a chair and chats with me about his upcoming exhibit at the Surrey Art Gallery. Throughout our conversation, passersby stop at our table to say hello to Jim. One invites him over for a movie.
It’s clear from these encounters that Jim Adams is well-known and well-loved in this community. Though born and raised in Philadelphia, he’s lived in Surrey/White Rock since 1989. His involvement goes back even further, to 1969, when he was one of the original three faculty members hired in Douglas College’s art department. The College eventually split in two and the part south of the Fraser River became what is now Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He taught there for almost thirty years.
“My art has grown and changed as the city has grown and changed,” he reflects. “A number of my landscapes are Surrey-based.”
We take a look at some photographs of them together and he draws my attention to Full Moon, a painting of houses set against an eerie sky. “Those are houses across the street from my studio,” Adams explains. “I call it Full Moon because things seem to go crazy under a full moon.” He laughs. “I took some liberties with my neighbours as you can see a couple arguing in there and they don’t argue. They’re quite a loving couple.”
He also points out July Storms and Sunday Noon (A View of Russell Avenue) as his other White Rock landscapes. A signature element in all of them is dramatic skies with some human action playing out in the foreground. He shows me Aftermath, a landscape with two figures in the bottom right corner that I don’t even notice until he mentions them. “The whole idea with this painting is that there’s this lovely sunset and then below, in the corner, is all this drama. It’s the aftermath of the police capturing someone.” He pauses for a moment. “Weather doesn’t play favourites. It can give you a beautiful sunset while you’re killing somebody.”
Pulling disparate pieces together is another characteristic of Adams’s work. He often reimagines classical myths into contemporary settings. He transformed one of his walking buddies into Freya, the Nordic goddess, with her Nordic walking poles and two cats flying through the air, pulling her chariot. “I think you’ll find there’s a fair bit of humour in my work,” Adams says. “People can more easily relate to things that are humorous than things which are dark and deep.”
If it seems like Adams’s paintings have a story to them, that’s intentional. He tries to capture “the irretrievable moment” (the title of his art exhibit), which he describes as “where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.” Such is the case with the signature image of his show, Nighthawks (Homage to Hopper). Locals enjoy their drinks in a Starbucks but something’s about to change because you spot the blue and red lights of a patrol car reflected in the window. The painting includes a cameo of the artist.
Adams captures another personal connection in the portrait Endurance, showing a woman on her way to clean houses. He says, “She’s been at it for years and has that look of determination that she’s going to get through this all.” He scratches his white beard, looking thoughtful. “I guess that’s an homage to my mother who did similar things to keep us afloat.”
Jim Adams has had a number of exhibits over his prolific career but says what makes this one unique is the wide spectrum of work it covers—going back five decades—with many never seen before artworks. Surrey Art Gallery will present Adams’s early book works and graphic arts, urban and suburban streetscapes, metaphysical landscapes, allegorical portraits, mythic sketches, and aviation abstractions.
Jim Adams: The Irretrievable Moment is a two-part retrospective exhibition presented by Surrey Art Gallery and The Reach Gallery Museum in Abbotsford. It opens April 8 at Surrey Art Gallery where Jim Adams will be giving an artist talk at 6:30pm. It runs until June 11. The Reach Gallery Museum will focus on Adams’s combined use of mythology, youth culture, and science fiction from the last two decades of his practice. It will run in Abbotsford from May 25 to September 3.
By Charlene Back, Communications Coordinator at Surrey Art Gallery
**Photo: Jim Adams, In Living Colour (8p.m. chan. 13) (1991), acrylic on canvas, 112 cm x 213 cm