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James Vann: From prison guard to celebrated artist, teacher

Published on: January 8, 2014

James Vann's work, featured this month at Brandon's Center Place Fine Arts and Civic Association, is inspired by old-school jazz.

James Vann's work, featured this month at Brandon's Center Place Fine Arts and Civic Association, is inspired by old-school jazz.

For two decades as a guard at one of America’s toughest prisons, James Vann held the keys to the cells of con men, killers and thieves. But it was with a paintbrush, not a key, that Vann unlocked and connected with the hard men of Rikers Island jail in New York City.

“A lot of people find themselves when they are locked up,” Vann said. “I found most of the prisoners were creating either through writing, painting or even sculpting with soap scum from the showers and hair from the barber shop.”

A word with his supervisors, and the prison art program was born with Vann leading classes at city prisons. “I would take their artwork to galleries in SoHo (the Mecca of New York’s art world) and the inmates’ pieces would sell more than mine” because people were intrigued by the stories of the artists creating art behind bars, Vann said.

And while he’s never stopped teaching, Vann is also always creating.

“Art and Soul,” an exhibition of Vann’s work, is featured this month at Center Place Fine Arts and Civic Association, 619 Vonderburg Dr., next to the Brandon Regional Library. Vann will be on hand for an opening night reception, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9.

A graduate of the High School of Art & Design in New York City, Vann attended New York’s Albert Pels School of Art before he began a career as corrections officer. Recognizing his artistic ability, Vann was quickly promoted to art director in New York City Department of Corrections’ Public Affairs Division, where he led art classes for more than 20 years.

“Jimmy has a true commitment to the arts and his life is dedicated to promote not only the arts, but the artists with a loving and generous commitment to helping those artists who are just now “budding,” unknown for now, just loving their experience under an experienced and generous professional artist,” said Ronna J. Metcalf, former director of Tampa’s Life Enrichment Center where Vann has taught for 12 years.

The recipient of numerous commissions for designs and murals from the New City Police and Fire departments and the Hillsborough County Public Art Committee, Vann was named Artist of the Year by the Greater Brandon Arts Council in 2011. Most recently, he completed six large outdoor murals on the African American history of the Bay area at the Tampa Police Department’s District III headquarters in East Tampa.

“Jimmy’s work is unique, tying together his love of jazz and neo-cubist art,” Metcalf said. “He is, I believe, a one-of-a-kind artist in the Tampa Bay community.”

Vann’s love of classic jazz drips from each canvas.

“Most of my artwork is based around old-school jazz. It’s the music I grew up on, and I try to recapture that flavor with my art,” said Vann, who can take anywhere from a couple of days to months to create a painting. “There’s a lot of jazz around today but much of it is electrified or amplified. I try to capture the soul of the old-school jazz,” said Vann, who also creates ties featuring jazz greats.

While paint flows through his veins, his passion for teaching runs just as deep.

“Every class I teach, you get someone who will say they can’t draw a straight line with a ruler but I just say ‘let’s sit down and try’ and I have not had one person who could not paint. We all can draw and paint,” said Vann who has led classes for seniors at the University of South Florida’s Center for Creative Aging and at-risk teens in Sulphur Springs.

“When I retired to Tampa 22 years ago, my plan was just to paint for myself but every time I see the successes of my students I can’t stop,” Vann said.

Vann is always working to help students reach their greater potential, Metcalf said. “Whether it’s older adults, like our students at the Life Enrichment Center, or children. Jimmy is an artist with a heart that is even larger, in my opinion, than his prolific and accomplished artistic career.”

Vann’s fame extends beyond the art world. Donald Bain, author of Murder, She Wrote, and a fan of Vann’s work, decided to set the latest version of the popular murder mystery series in Ybor City after spending time in Tampa with Vann. Prescription for Murder includes an acknowledgement to Vann and wife Jeannette, and also references the Life Enrichment Center.

Center Place’s gift shop has been displaying Vann’s work for “a couple of years now so we just thought we would ask him to do a show here and display his work,” said Lisa Rodriguez, the center’s marketing director. “He’s a very interesting person, and his work is very colorful so I think the exhibition will draw a huge crowd.”

Vann, 74, will carry his paintbrush to the grave.

“Like any artist or musician who loves his art, you can’t retire from it. You might retire from the stage, but you can’t stop singing or plying your craft.” 

Vann’s artwork will be on display Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Jan. 29 at Center Place. Call 813-685-8888 for more information.

Visit Vann’s website, or email the artist at to learn more about his work.