Germantown artist Urijah James has an extremely unusual quality. In a world of page-long “artist statements” mounted alongside paintings, social media promotions and endless gallery schmoozing, he is loath to talk about himself.
After a lifetime of sculpture in wood and stone, expert custom tiling and salvage handiwork, stained glass creations, paintings, metalwork, and 33 years of playing the bass guitar, the soft-spoken Antigua native is even reluctant to call himself an artist.
“You know what, a few folks is convincing me that I am,” said James with a laugh. “Whatever I do, folks appreciate it as art.”
James and his longtime friend and client, Mt. Airy resident Debbie Lerman – the impetus behind James’s first-ever dedicated art show – sat down with NewsWorks this week for cups of tea spiced with lemon, ginger and plenty of pepper.
“We chose this location because of the windows,” Lerman said of mounting James’s inaugural show – a selection of tile and glasswork – at High Point Café inside SEPTA’s Allen Lane Train Station. “This is the absolute perfect show for here” because of the venue’s ample natural light.
‘Everything is art’
Lerman is a steadfast advocate of James’s art as well as his day-job as a sub-contractor for specialized home remodeling projects throughout the Philadelphia region.
“The great thing about his work in tile is that even when he’s just laying a floor, it’s always done artistically,” she said. “He can just lay the tiles down, but if you let him, he’ll do it in a more imaginative way.”
James has a knack for tweaking simple angles and squares into unexpected intricacies, and has a special fondness for working with salvaged doors – he created a closet for Lerman’s home made entirely of doors rescued from the Divine Lorraine hotel in North Philadelphia.
“My concept is that everything is art. Everything is art, everything is art,” James said. “It comes with its own idea, whatever medium it is.”
Subjects for his current show at the High Point, which runs through the end of February, include a sensitive black-and-white tile rendering of two faces, back to back: Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
Glasswork pieces include a portrait of Bill Cosby and the son he lost, an evocative silhouette of the Boys II Men band-mates, and a glass of wine rendered in stained glass, titled “Communion.”
While spiritual themes figure strongly in many of James’s pieces, the latter is not just about a religious rite.”It’s about this, it’s about what’s happening here,” he said of friends grouped around café tables.
His “Two Witnesses,” a colorful study of two dramatic figures reaching upward, is inspired by a passage of Revelation. “It can be looked upon as judgment or blessings,” he said.
James also does commissioned portraits in stained glass. One of his most popular subjects has been Bob Marley, rendered in glass. “That move,” he chuckled of the Bob Marley sales.
A modest man
James, who recently celebrated his 33rd anniversary with his wife Donna, a teacher, lived in Antigua until the late 1980s, where four of his five children were born. Then his family joined his mother in New York City, where he occasionally showed individual pieces of his work.
“I lived in Harlem,” he said, but “stuff is kind of getting too crazy in Harlem.”
James and his family chose to relocate to Germantown, a neighborhood he enjoys for its local history and architecture, about 12 years ago.
“At the time, it was a little slow-paced, much slower than New York anyway at the time,” he admits. “At that point, moving from Harlem to Philly was like coming to the country.”
Once James settled in Germantown, it took Lerman (herself a photographer who has often exhibited at the High Point) several years to convince him that his work merited its own show.
“I’m never really satisfied with the quality of my work,” James explained.
That said, James said he does get a “little boost” from seeing his work in public.
Now, the introverted artisan said he is ready to consider a more active role in the burgeoning Germantown arts scene. He’s hoping to launch another show soon on Chelten Avenue.