Veteran artist finds a new home
MIDDLEBURY — Birthdays.
To many folks, they are just another number in life’s ever-spinning calendar. But Jim Borden would like to remember his 81st birthday for something other than a lot of candles on a cake.
Borden, a lifelong painter now living at Middlebury’s Lodge at Otter Creek, wants to mark his birthday milestone by seeing his artwork hanging in 81 different restaurants in Addison and Chittenden counties. His goal is not driven so much by self-promotion as it is by an effort to allow the public to appreciate some very impressive work that has been hiding in the shadows for lack of wall space.
“An artist who says he paints for himself is a dang liar,” Borden said in an earnest, Midwestern lilt occasionally sprinkled with pauses. He still suffers some of the ill effects of a stroke he suffered a few years ago — a setback that ultimately took him from Indiana to the Lodge and closer to his daughter, Gail Borden, who is helping her dad organize his voluminous art portfolio.
It’s a portfolio that continues to grow, as a stroke, chronic arthritis and advancing age have not succeeded in tearing Borden away from his love for painting.
Borden was drawn to drawing at an early age. He recalled illustrating book reports for school and impressing his instructors.
“I had a teacher who said you should think about being an illustrator,” Borden recalled.
He thought he’d give it a shot, and took to writing some political cartoons for the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune. He estimates he did around 50 cartoons in all for the paper.
“I got a steady income; I think it was $5 apiece,” Borden said with a chuckle.
He wasn’t too encouraged about making a living as a political cartoonist, however. Borden recalled reading a quote from iconic editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin who warned, “If anyone is thinking about going into this, don’t.”
The reason was, newspapers were increasingly eliminating their own staff cartoonists for cheaper, syndicated offerings.
So, at this point still a young man, Borden found himself at a crossroads. Since he continued to show talents in the medium and was drawing accolades for his work, he chose to continue pursuing a career in art. He enrolled in a Chicago art school, where the teachers were extremely frank with the new students. Borden recalled how his teacher asked him and his classmates to look at each other and acknowledge statistics:
“There is a 98-percent washout rate,” he recalled being told of the number of aspiring artists who never make it big.
“I’m glad they warned me,” Borden said with a smile.
He resigned himself to the fact that art, for him, would be a passion rather than a vocation. So he joined his dad’s restaurant, the J. & A. Grill in South Bend, where he worked for 55 years and eight months.
During that time, Borden made sure to take time to wield a paintbrush as well as a spatula. In fact, the restaurant provided him with copious amounts of wall space on which to hang his paintings — a diverse assortment of watercolors and oils running the subject gamut from rural streetscapes to wildlife to colorful clowns.
Customers appreciated the art and, on occasion, bought it. And Borden, by now in his middle years, continued to refine his artistic eye and skills. He took classes at the South Bend Regional Museum of Art and quickly stood out as one of the star pupils — so much so that when a senior instructor resigned, he was asked to take his place. This began a 30-year teaching gig. It was during this time that Borden earned quite a local following for his artwork, which by this time had grown to include portraits. He received commissions to paint several local and visiting politicians and luminaries.
Painting portraits, though, was actually one of Borden’s least favorite assignments — because the subjects often try to influence the work as it progresses.
“You end up painting what they think they should look like,” Borden said, with clients most often taking issue with how the mouth — the most animated part of a person’s face — should be rendered on canvass.
Borden instead gravitated toward nature, a love that intensified after he moved to Vermont. The small theater room at the Lodge also serves as Borden’s art gallery. Around two dozen of his paintings, mostly watercolors, adorn the walls. The vibrant works bear such titles as “looking for a parking spot in Brandon,” a streetscape; “Heading south,” depicting geese in flight; “Vermont snow,” featuring a cabin in a snowy clearing; “horse riders”; and “tall hat,” a portrait of a clown sporting an oversized top hat.
Borden now prefers watercolors, because they offer speedier gratification.
“Oil is too slow; you have to wait for drying time,” he said with a smile.
In most instances, the veteran artist photographs the scenes he’d like to paint. He takes those photos on family trips or during excursions with other Lodge residents. And unlike some of his contemporaries who’d just as soon take a pass on new gadgetry, Borden has embraced digital photography and uploads his photos to his computer.
He usually conducts his painting sessions during the afternoon.
“I’m not a morning person,” he chuckled. And if he isn’t inspired on a given day, he won’t force it. He just puts down the brush and waits for the next day.
Manipulating a paintbrush isn’t as easy for Borden as it used to be. He had four plastic knuckles inserted in his right hand around 30 years ago in an effort to better cope with severe arthritis. He learned to paint with his left hand, but still prefers using his right — and does a wonderful job.
“It’s all done in your head,” Borden said of his paintings.
His work has paid off — if not in riches, then in recognition.
In 1976, Borden presented a published series of portraits — studies of Lincoln, Custer, Sitting Bull, Grant and Lee — at the White House to the U.S. Veterans Administration.
In the 1980s, his painting “Here Come the Irish” was issued as a limited edition for the National Alumni Association of Notre Dame. His portrait “Steve” was a finalist in a competition sponsored by the national magazine “American Artist” and was exhibited in New York City. A painting done of a scene from Acadia National Park was among the final 100 in the National Arts for the Parks competition in 1988. “Family Outing,” which is part of this exhibit, was a finalist in the National Arts for the Parks competition in 1993.
ART IN LOCAL RESTAURANTS
Now, at the age of 81 and residing in the Green Mountain State, Borden would like to see his career come full circle. Just as he got his start by having his art exhibited in the family restaurant, he’d like to see his work exhibited at Vermont dining establishments. And 81 seemed like a good number, to match his age.
Gail Borden has started approaching restaurants in Addison and Chittenden counties. Seven such establishments thus far have agreed to exhibit a combined total of 24 Borden paintings. Local exhibitors, according to Gail Borden, include Middlebury’s Swift House Inn and New Haven’s Tourterelle.
Gail Borden said paintings will be for sale, but stressed there is no big profit motive for the exhibition plan. Any sales proceeds will be put into framing additional paintings, she said.
“We are introducing Vermont to a new, old artist,” Gail Borden said with a smile. “If someone wants to buy (the paintings), even better.”
Indeed, Jim Borden has become a realist when it comes to the hobby that has given him so much pleasure all these years.
“The best advice I ever got was, ‘Do something you really like, even if you’re not going to make much money at it, and if you’re doing it for the money, you’ll probably quit; if you get paid, that’s a bonus,’” he said.
More information on Borden and his effort to find 81 exhibit spaces can be found at www.bordenart.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]