By Kathy Chouteau
Ninety-year-old Richmond resident Jim DeWitt’s path to becoming an internationally renowned artist was as shifting and unpredictable as the waves the sailing enthusiast once raced upon.
Born during the Depression, DeWitt struggled with dyslexia at a time when nobody really knew what it was. “They thought I was lazy or stupid,” said DeWitt. “I hated school because I couldn’t read…The kids would laugh if I had to get up in front of the class, and so, school was a nightmare.”
An unexpected escape arrived courtesy of his father, who was building something extraordinary in their backyard. It would leave an indelible mark on the younger DeWitt that resonated well into his future.
“My father built a boat he designed in the backyard when I was a little boy and it was a 19’ sloop,” recalled DeWitt, who eventually sailed it in the Oakland Estuary. “So that sparked my interest in sailing.”
Today, DeWitt’s paintings—often depicting sailboat races—are collected worldwide. In 2012, he was named artist-in-residence at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, host of the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco.
DeWitt’s interest in sailing picked up wind during his younger years, when he got a job as a lifeguard at Lake Temescal. He earned enough money to buy the wood to make his own little 8’ dinghy called an El Touro.
“So I built my own boat and my father supervised. He was a perfectionist, so it was gorgeous,” he said.
DeWitt brought his sailboat down to Lake Merritt and quickly started racing it against the other kids. He was a fast learner; by the end of the first season, he had tied for champion. DeWitt credits these early experiences as igniting his lifelong passion for sailing.
Meanwhile, another lifelong passion was taking flight for DeWitt. This time, it was thanks to an art class taught by a physical education teacher.
“In high school they had an art class that was taught by a PE teacher and he gave me an A,” said DeWitt, who had struggled educationally due to his dyslexia. “He thought I was just the greatest thing since sliced bread.” This encouragement led to DeWitt’s mother sending him to art school, where he learned the PE teacher had been wrong about a few things.
“Because of a ‘wrong’ PE teacher who was teaching art, I became an artist,” DeWitt enthused, noting the teacher inadvertently pointed him in the right direction. From there, it was ‘smooth sailing’ as he pursued his dual passions—sailboat racing and art—with the two pursuits often merging in his paintings. Meanwhile, he also supported himself and his family (wife, Sallie, and three children) as a sailmaker.
As for DeWitt’s sailing exploits, they eventually culminated in him earning the title of North American Men’s Sailing Champion and International Masters Sailing Champion.
So, how does this Richmond nonagenarian describe his artistic style? “Beautiful,” DeWitt said with a wry smile. “In many ways I’m a colorist…and impressionist. I’ll paint anything; I’ve painted cars, horses, airplanes…you name it, I’ve painted it.” By the looks of the paintings in his home, DeWitt’s works often employ stunningly vibrant colors and express movement.
“Painting is problem-solving; you never know how it’s going to turn out,” he said. “It starts with some sort of an idea, but it changes as you go along. And you claim your mistakes. If you ever make a mistake and you like it, claim it!”
Currently, DeWitt is painting a sailboat-themed piece for the cover of Latitude 38 magazine. Aside from painting his heart’s content, he also accepts commissions, such as portraits of people and dogs.
While donning a “90 Never Looked So Good” baseball hat, DeWitt mused on his philosophy on life. “If you want to live a long time, always stand up more than you fall down.”
Want to see Mr. DeWitt’s work for yourself? His artwork is being exhibited now through April 30 at Kaleidoscope Coffee, 109 Park Place in Point Richmond. The exhibition is sponsored by The Arts of Point Richmond (AOPR). You can also meet DeWitt at an Artist’s Reception at the same location Sat., March 7, from 4-6 p.m.
To learn more about DeWitt and his art—or to check out his online galleries—click here. The artist can also be reached at 866.463.6231.