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Expressive art teacher is 'a regular guy'

By Johnny Jackson

James Brantley describes himself as "just a regular guy and family man. I've been married 40 years."

He also considers himself a classical realist, who has painted hundreds of paintings in his lifetime. The 60-year-old majored in art at Auburn University and graduated in 1971, when he became an art teacher.

Now retired, the self-described painter travels about 98 miles each morning to Forest Park from his home in Opelika, Ala., to teach six art classes at Huie Elementary.

"I like the kids," Brantley said about his kindergarten through fifth-grade classes.

"I really enjoy working with the small kids. They're energetic and still eager to learn. It's just a lot of fun working with them. I've got grandchildren the same age as my students. And I enjoy being around the kids as much as my grandchildren-I like being around people. I like being with people."

Tuesday, he and his students worked on paper mache masks. He demonstrated how to make them using a face mold.

"I made them scary masks," he said. "Most of them wanted scary masks. They're learning how to use three-dimensional paper mache materials, and they're learning about other cultures in the world.

"I told my students when I was a boy we made our own Halloween masks," he said. "My mom used to help make masks."

There is a picture of a 12-year-old Brantley painting a static profile of "Red Cloud," using an oil painting set his parents gave him for Christmas.

Recently, he intensely re-created that character in "Twilight of a Titan." And the difference is as far-spreading as the years between the two creations. The latter is aged, an improvement in the way wine is improved.

"I try, every time I make something to paint a picture that will reach out and grab somebody from across the room and make someone come over and look at it," he said. "If I can do that, then, I'm happy with it."

Two such paintings hang in the Performing Arts Center lobby now. But his favorite is not there.

"Purple Heart" is his favorite painting. The portrait is side-lit, where the character of a sad and barely woman sits in a dark room near an open window, glancing down as she holds the shoulder of a shirt clumsily flung and veiled over the back of a chair.

The shirt has a purple hue as does the room. No less, it almost completely conceals the chair and the woman as spots of light tap the shirt and the woman both, seeming to crawl away from her as the day appears to move along on the bright outside.

"It's a painting of a girl sitting in a chair with a white shirt draped on the chair with the sunlight streaming through the window. She is sad for some reason," Brantley said.

This, as his other paintings, has character and life. And he said he portrays those attributes through light and design.

"Once you learn how to do (realism), it's easy. Sort of like watching someone skate and then learning to do it yourself. The hard part is not making it look real, the hard part is making a good design.

"A lot of realistic pictures aren't very good paintings," he said. "It's sort of like a play, you get them to act a little bit."

He has some admiration for the Italian painter Caravaggio of the 1600's. He said he admired Caravaggio's use of "really strong, intense lighting."

Brantley typically uses water color and oil to paint people he knows or people he has me-beautiful people he said, inside and out. He also has several pencil sketches in graphite.

Brantley has a concentrated opinion about many things in his life. They can be as focused as his sometimes year-long painting project.

"I think art went through a terrible period in the 20th century," he said. "There was technically art, but bad art."

He prefers bluegrass to contemporary country. Country is inundated with pop music these days, he said. Instead, he favors 'Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys'.

"It's just plain country music. It's real country music. It's about real people."

He also loves the Clint Eastwood movie: "The Outlaw Josey Wales." And when he is not too busy he watches "Law and Order for its plot development.

Brantley's favorite color is brown. His hobbies include but are not limited to hiking in the Smokey Mountains and fishing on Lake Martin in Alabama to have "whatever I can catch (or) whatever comes up."

He sings gospel too; he is a bass voice.

These days he said he goes to work, then he goes home.

The retired gentleman works full time as an art teacher in Forest Park and returns late afternoons to his home in Alabama where he also teaches night art classes at Southern Union Community College. Then, on the weekend-this weekend-he said he may attend Auburn University's football homecoming game.

He seems busy. His excuse: "It's easy to get more iron in the fire than you can handle."

His brief biography at his website better describes him.

"No matter what I may have been successful in doing with my art, I'm still that little (12-year-old) boy in the picture," he said.