James Buck King, Sr. painted all the time. There was no set hour, said his daughter Sonia King. Music was blasting out of his studio in Shiprock, New Mexico. She and her siblings could smell the oil.
And the artist was zoned out.
Sitting there with a headband around his head and wearing camouflage short pants and no shirt. The carpet or tile familiar to his bare feet. He often set up his easel in the living room, kitchen or master bedroom.
“Sometimes he didn’t know you were watching him,” Sonia King said. “He loved painting.”
The Navajo artist was mountain biking on Oct. 16 with his son when he had a cardiac arrest. He died that morning at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, Colorado. He was 68. The Shiprock High School graduate was born on August 8, 1951.
His loss was felt by the Shiprock community and all over the Navajo Nation on social media.
Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi, sports writer for the Navajo Times, wrote how his presence and work made a huge impact.
“We lost another great one today. #Navajo artist James King told our stories with a paintbrush and canvas, and he did it well,” she said. “His paintings depicted Navajo life, laughter, and tragedy; showing how resilient we were/are as a people. He and his work will be missed.”
Char Bee, who lives in Minnesota, told Jamie King, one of the three daughters, about a poster gifted by her dad and his yearly calendar.
“I cherish the poster your dad gave me the year Raven was in my class…I often look at it and get lost in thoughts about home. The calendar arrived yesterday and it was a bittersweet moment see another creation by your dad.”
The Navajo artist learned the craft as a child, or as his daughter said, “since he could write,” and never stopped. He grew up with a large family on a farm along the San Juan River in Shiprock.
Everything would be covered in paint. The house, the outside, animals. His white dog, Ben, would be painted with eyebrows or WWF on the side. People would drive by and laugh at the dog.
And if you knew James King’s paintings, they were one-of-a-kind. He had a very distinct style, which he developed in art school. He dropped out after his art professor kept trying to have him take on a conforming type of paint style.
His daughter Jamie King called him a “true artist” because he was “not drive by greed or money but by dreams and inspiration.”
James King focused on painting things that he wanted to paint. Not what the people wanted, said his wife Cynthia Fowler, also known as Cindy, of 23 years.
And he stated exactly that on his website: “As an artist, I paint to create stories on canvas that speaks to my audience and capture the beauty of the land and simplicity of life that exists now and before my time. I try with every finished work to breathe life into a long forgotten events and lifestyle of my Navajo People.”
One piece of work the Navajo people know him for is “The Long Walk” painting. It captures the painful and forced journey of 8,000 Navajos from their homelands to Fort Sumner. Thousands died during the 300-plus walk and at the camp.
King used art to deal with life – and trauma.
“Meaning if he had something going on like an event or something to work through like death or a tragic event or happy event, he painted for a while,” Fowler said. “He used it to function.”
He also needed exercise to function, she said. Not many knew Fowler’s husband was a physically active person. He would go biking, weightlifting, snowboarding, skiing, and hiking. He enjoyed the outdoors and often fished and camped In his younger years, he was a boxer and took part in karate. He competed in Shotokan.
Jaime King said he would tell her and her siblings to eat right and take care of themselves.
He did everything with his children: Raven, James Ari, Dakotah, Josiah, Sonia, Jamie and Dania. They often went to their dad first when they need to someone to talk to.
Just as a dad, he was protective and spoiled his kids. His kids loved his laughter and joking nature. He was fun, crazy, and introduced them to a lot of activities since he knew how to play guitar, piano, and harmonica.
Sonia King remembers him teaching her how to ride a motorcycle. He checked her out of school for her 16th birthday. She came outside to find a motorcycle in the back of his truck. He took her to the sandy trails near the nonprofit housing.
During the times the kids were lazy or sick or didn’t feel like going to school, he’d drive to the store in his corvette for chicken noodle soup and 7up.
His niece, Trini King, said with a laugh over the phone, “He was the only man I knew driving around Shiprock with a corvette.”
Trini King and her uncle James were close. He bought her first car.
There’s a painting of a girl in a sweater on a rock slab with her dog sitting down with Shiprock pinnacle in the background. It was his niece during her senior year of high school.
“He was like, ‘Trini, you are going to do amazing things after high school. And just to know you know Trini this painting totally explains it all,” she said. In the painting, she is contemplating on leave the rez.
“His point was to get out there. I did. He was that much of an influence in my life,” Trini King said.
Just like his kids, he took her snowboarding and told her to do things that her parents were afraid for her to do.
He would tell her, “Just because you’re a girl that should make you want to do it more.”
“I kept pushing,” she said. “Eventually after that painting, I got casted into my first film.” She co-starred with powerhouses like Wes Studi and Irene Bernard. “I owe him all of that. “From the get go, he planted that seed. We always talked about doing more projects. He said, ‘Trini, you need to do more. Trini, you’re going to do more.’”
Her uncle James took time for others.
For example, he would have breakfast at Thatsaburger and mingle and hangout with the Navajo men there. Trini King said he jokingly called it the “losers club.”
“We’re just a bunch of old Navajo men,” she recalled him saying. “He took time from his busy schedule to talk to everybody.”
Even though he touched a lot of people in the community, on the Navajo, and around the world, his wife, Cindy, knew him day in and day out for more than two decades.
She described James King as going to the extremes. “He saw life as black and white. Never in the middle.”
They met while they were art students in high school, but got together years later. When they did meet up again, he was her art professor at Diné College, which was Navajo Community College in the 1990s. Fowler was getting into art herself. She’s a sculptor.
Last spring, she came across a painting in his studio. He was working on a painting of a traditional grandpa and grandma smiling shyly at each other. The Navajo grandpa is giving the grandma a paper with a red heart drawn on it. He didn’t complete it, but it’s “pretty clear,” she said.
“I still have the first one he gave me,” Fowler said. It’s hung on her wall for 22 years.
He has a mural that hangs in the Denver International Airport that only arrivals from international flights can see. The mural is of the first people looking into a valley, she said.
The public isn’t allowed to see it and even the painter himself, and Cindy, had to get special permission to see it (and they had to go through customs).
His work will be continued to be seen in the Denver airport, casinos, or Heard Museum. But the world may never see the computer graphic side of himself. A side he never shared with the public.
But when the public does see his work know that James King, Sr. invested his mind, body and soul into his paintings. So much that he would imagine himself as the object he was painting.
Fowler’s sister asked him how he could be so detailed with his paintings and bring them to life.
For instance, a cornstalk. He wanted to be a cornstalk “where his feet were in the cool dirt, nourished by the rain, and swaying back and forth in the wind.”
“His paintings were done with feeling,” said his sister-in-law.
Fowler wrapped up the community and family’s thoughts of James Buck King, Sr.: “There will never be someone like him.”
The memorial service is today from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Civic Center in Farmington, New Mexico. It is open to the public.