Born in Union City, Tennessee, and raised in rural Kentucky, C. James "Jimmy" Wright is a painter and pastel artist of international note with a career in the arts spanning over fifty years.
After a few semesters at Murray State College (now University), Wright received a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, from which he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1967 and studied with renowned painter Ray Yoshida.
Wright then entered the graduate program at SIUC and achieved his master of fine arts degree in 1971, despite losing nearly all of the art he had completed to that point in a 1970 house fire. While at SIUC, he was an organizer of the university's first LGBTQ+ organization, one of the earliest in the country.
A few years of teaching and travel followed—California, Europe, Asia—followed, then Wright settled in the Bowery, New York City, in 1974, just as the punk and gay scenes were reaching an early peak. There, Wright used the vibrant nightlife as a source of inspiration for a series of paintings capturing the libertine atmosphere of the clubs and bathhouses as well as quieter moments between the gay men of the neighborhood which Wright observed and then later painted from memory.
The arrival of the AIDS epidemic in New York's gay community in the early 1980s brought an end to the clubs and the lives of many of those associated with them, including a number of Wright's friends. More devastatingly, Wright's partner of over a decade, Ken Nuzzo, was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988.
To better care for Nuzzo, Wright switched the subject of his art to cut flowers: subjects which could be arranged and the paintings worked on when time permitted. The first two of these flower paintings were painted on monumental scale on canvas and stretchers Wright salvaged from a dumpster. The second such was not completed until after Nuzzo's death in 1991.
Today, Wright resides in the same building on Freeman Alley, just off Bowery, he and Nuzzo purchased in 1979 and restored. He continues to create stunning portraits of flowers, some in somber colors, some absolutely riotous. In recognition of his work and commitment to his art, Wright was named a National Academician of the National Academy of Design in 2018 and elected the president of the National Pastel Society in 2013, an office he continues to hold. His art resides in the collection of many leading museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as private collections and galleries around the world.
In addition, Wright has set aside funds to endow scholarships for art students at Murray State University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a fellowship for graduate art students at SIUC, giving back to the communities which nurtured his talents and helping future generations follow in his footsteps.
Jimmy Wright, selfie, ca. 2021.
Portrait of the Artist, 2001.
Pastel by Jimmy Wright, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, USA.
Wright talks with Dean John Pollitz about being a gay student at SIUC in the early 1970s, the gay milieu in New York City post-Stonewall and how it came crashing down when AIDS spread like a plague through the community, and.what it meant to him (and, by example, others) when his partner, Ken Nuzzo, contracted HIV.
Wright's 1974 drawing Uniform attracts the eye to a poster for Lionheart Gay Theater's 1983 production of Jeff Hagedorn’s One, the first publicly produced theatrical work concerning AIDS. Theater designer Rick Paul, Wright's roommate during his time in Chicago, was one of the principal founders of Lionheart Gay Theater and designed the poster. The poster and other documents related to Lionheart Gay Theater, One, and Jeff Hagedorn are available at the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
Photograph by David Fierman, courtesy of Jimmy Wright
Actor Russell Tovey (left) visited Wright (right) shortly before the opening of the show "Flowers for Ken" and the two of them posed with the monumental sunflower pastels which gave the show its name. Tovery clearly enjoyed the experience, posting about it on his Instagram and calling Wright "a legend."
The paintings were created over the three-year period during which Wright served as caretaker to his partner, Ken Nuzzo, during his struggle with AIDS. They explore the same sunflower from two angles, two points in time, and two distinct moods and are now part of the collection of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
Courtesy of Jimmy Wright
The poster for Wright's 2023 show "Down Home" features a.snapshot of his maternal grandmother posing with a next door neighbor, “who was always dressing up in men’s clothes," circa 1913.