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Arts Festival Countdown: After a career, a second chance at art

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By Jenna McKenna

"I realized I had a chance to do what I really wanted."

Atlanta-area water-colorist Jim Wilshire, one of the artists coming to this year's Old Florida Celebration of the Arts, double-majored in archaeology and anthropology at Georgia State University, but after graduation he took a corporate job in sales.

"I had a family to support, so although those were my interests, I really wasn't able to pursue a career," he said.

Decades later, his hard work and sacrifice paid off. After living two years in London at the end of 30 years in sales management, Wilshire realized that his daughter was graduating from college and he himself was facing the prospect of being transferred to Ohio.

"I said, 'Well, I don't think I want to move to Dayton,'" he recalls. "We had kept our home in Roswell (north of Atlanta) for over 30 years and we were very happy there."

Wilshire had always had an artistic streak, starting from art classes in early childhood, his father's career as a concert violinist and his grandmother's work as a painter. Throughout his adult life, he says, he would be seized at about five-year intervals by what he calls "fits" of painting.

"I painted all kinds of things," he said. "Boats, landscapes, still lifes. And then after a little while, I would put the paints away and that would be that, for a while."

Suddenly, with an unsavory-looking transfer behind him and a sense that he had already come through the bulk of his familial support duties, a choice loomed - quit the corporation and paint for a living.

That was 15 years ago.

Now, Wilshire paints boats, almost exclusively. Clippers, schooners, dories and dinghies, small craft and ocean-going, some come from his imagination, but most come from life.

"I like to paint historic boats, because I like to do the research about the boat's background," says the former anthro-archaeology major. "Every boat has a story and a unique personality."

To achieve the kind of detail and character the boat's story calls for, Wilshire frequently works in mixed media of pastel with watercolor.

The pastel allows him to drag and smudge strokes, getting the right saturation and texture, particularly for the water.

"People think that water is blue, but it depends on the light. It can be gray or black or green," he said. "It's not always clear - it can be opaque or muddy. Water has a lot of planes, and each plane reflects light differently. The pastels allow me to control those planes better."

A lifelong sailor in a family of sailors and pilots - Wilshire can also fly - he says his greatest interest apart from painting is maritime history, which strongly informs his work.

His favorite piece, and perhaps most complicated project, is a painting called "Marigold," after the pilot boat of the same name.

Built in France in 1892, the boat was restored and is currently on display in London.

"The work I had to do with the straight lines was very difficult," Wilshire recalls. "I did them all freehand, because I don't like to mask - you run the risk of pulling up paper when you remove the tape. So I had to give up coffee and red wine for the whole three weeks I was working on the actual painting, because I needed my hands to be perfectly steady."

Another piece he likes, called "Jupiter," really sums up what Wilshire says he's trying to do with his work.

"Jupiter was built by Fay and Bowen in 1925 - it was a Jupiter Runabout, and when I saw it, it was owned by a guy in Michigan who wanted to sell it for $120,000," he says.

"I thought to myself, 'I can't buy that, but I can paint it, and my work won't need any maintenance, no varnish.'"

Although he's been largely dedicated to painting boats since he started his professional art career, Wilshire says he doesn't see a fundamental shift coming any time soon.

"I still have a lot to say with boats," he says. "I'm still learning, too. Every day you learn new techniques, new ideas."

"We never stop learning."