Artist James Little comes home to Memphis for Dixon exhibition

New York City-based artist James Little is returning to his hometown to share his work.

“I'm a painter of ideas,” he said. “It's just a matter of how you take simple things that are in the environment, or in what we have experienced, like geometry, color, design, straight lines, broken lines, you know, that kind of thing. Nothing is set.”

Memphis inspiration

A native Memphian, Little has worked as an artist in New York City for more than 40 years. He has won numerous awards and honors, including inclusion in the prestigious 2022 Whitney Biennial.

This spring, his art is being featured in a new exhibition at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

Little's upbringing in Memphis has always been an influence on his approach to making art, which he described as “resilient, determined, and efficient.”

“My work ethic, the rigor in my work, and my sensibility towards color and surface and design, a lot of that comes directly from my parents,” he said. “You couldn’t waste anything.”

Little said his abstract style developed organically over time, and that he doesn’t put limitations on his own creativity. He doesn’t take inspiration from any one artist, instead trying a little bit of everything to see what works.

“It's like, you go to a store and you decide on what brand of coffee you like. But then there’s something else, and you want to see what that's like. And it speaks to you,” said Little. “That's what I do. A lot of it is based on intuition.”

Little credits the now-shuttered Memphis College of Art with playing an instrumental role in his development.

“It was called the Academy of Art at that time,” he said. “I studied there with Patrick Hughes, Ted Ross, and Jamison Jones. It was a small, rigorous school, arguably the best art school in the south.”

After receiving his bachelor’s of fine art from the Academy of Art, Little earned his master’s from Syracuse University and relocated to New York City, where he has lived and worked since 1976.

Sweet Sixteen

The Dixon didn’t open until two years after Little left Memphis. Now, his work will be featured there along with several other small curated shows as part of their “Sweet Sixteen” exhibition. From April 17–July 10, each of the museum’s 16 galleries will house a different scaled-down themed collection.

“This is kind of a mini-preview of lots of things,” said Chantal Drake, development and communications director at the Dixon. “[Pieces] out of our permanent collection—porcelain, pastels, and drawings—but then also exhibitions featuring work that is not a part of our collection.”

Drake said one of their board members is a collector of Little’s work and suggested it for inclusion in the exhibition. As soon as Dixon leadership saw the pieces, they eagerly agreed to showcase it.

Homecoming view

Little said he is a bit disheartened at the changes to some of the landscape of the arts community in Memphis.

"I just hate that the school closed at the Art Academy and I understand that Brooks is about to move downtown,” he said. “I don't know who makes those decisions, but I think that when you take the arts out of a society, you pretty much have ripped out the aorta of a place.”

No matter what changes come to the local arts community, Little said he wants Memphians to understand how crucial the arts are to the city in terms of creativity, spirituality, and positive energy.

“When we talk about [a city] being vibrant,” said Little, “you don't have that unless you have the arts, and a vibrant art community.”
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Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.