JIMMY LOUIS MATHEWUSE
“A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH”
By Sidney L. Matthew
There are many talented artists in this city, some of whom are little known or appreciated. Last Christmas, the author was gifted a portrait of his three children painted by local Tallahassee artist, Jimmy Louis Mathewuse. Impressed by the quality of his work, the author set out to find out more about this extraordinary talent who just happens to live in Tallahassee.
Artists are a tribe apart. They look like the rest of us. But they are different in important ways. They see things we don’t bother to see. They are impressed by things too mundane for us. They are able to look into the window of the soul of people in whom we are too preoccupied to interest ourselves. The gifts of artists are never more apparent than when one looks into the eyes of a painted portrait and says in awe, “he’s looking at me.”
That is the impression created by the works of Tallahassee portrait artist Jimmy Louis Mathewuse. His gifts and the ways he has expressed them tell a remarkable story. His story is little known likely because Jimmy hides his light under a bushel. But his extraordinary works of art are incapable of anonymity.
Although he has lived in Tallahassee for the past five years, few people know Jimmy Mathewuse. But if you asked the past top art directors of publishing houses like Dell, Ace, Bantam, Warner Pocket Books, Zebra Archway, or Jove Books in New York City, they would be happy to share Jimmy’s national reputation as one of America’s leading illustrators for book covers. If you ever wondered who painted the covers for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery novels, the chances are good that Jimmy created them. Since he started painting book covers in 1976, Jimmy has been commissioned to paint over 400 book covers by all the top publishing companies. Jimmy’s paintings have graced the covers of all genres from westerns (“The John Wayne Story”) to thrillers (“Time After Time”) to romance to adventure (“Warlord of Cathay”) to Taylor Caldwell’s “The Strong City.”
As one of the New York publishing houses’ popular illustrators, Mathewuse also became the sole artist who created over 250 covers for the “Sweet Valley High” and “Sweet Valley Twins” young adult romance series. Another young adult book, “Tiger Eyes” by Judy Blume, won the prestigious honors for “Best Young Adult Book of the Year.” The young adult series that Jimmy painted have been recognized as the largest selling, not only in America, but in the world.
Born in Tampa, James Louis Mathewuse recognized his interest in art at a tender age. When he saw his first grade teacher draw a bunny rabbit extemporaneously on the blackboard, he knew then he wanted to create the same type of magic on the easel. Jimmy fooled around from about age twelve drawing animal portraits. “I’d actually try to sell those for a few dollars,” Jimmy laughs today. “I did them mostly because it was fun and people seemed to enjoy them.” By age 19, he turned to the more serious endeavor of painting portraits of people. “It just seemed to come naturally to me,” Jimmy recalls. “It became a challenge to capture a person’s spirit on the canvas.” So I went to Miami where I thought there was some action.” Jimmy set up a studio between the Carillon and Deauville Hotels across the street from Wolfies famous restaurant. “They had a lot of famous celebrities going in and out of those places,” Jimmy says. He was making pretty good money knocking out charcoal portraits in a couple of hours and getting paid in cash.
While he was there, Jimmy met another artist, “Armando,” who specialized in pastel portraits. It wasn't’t long before Jimmy persuaded Armando to teach him how to paint with pastels. “He was a master of the pastel medium,” Jimmy says of his early mentor. “I learned some very useful techniques from him, but it wasn’t long before I realized I had to grow and improve.”
After he returned to Tampa, Jimmy’s reputation for fine work landed him several extraordinary commissions. In early 1962, Jimmy was asked by the Democratic Committee of Florida to paint the portrait of President John F. Kennedy. “I was honored they asked me to do that,” Jimmy recalls. “President Kennedy was pretty popular and there were many, many artists who would have loved to have my job. I worked especially hard on that portrait. And they asked me to fly to Miami to present the portrait to the President while he was at the Deauville Hotel giving a speech. I rode on the plane from Tampa and sat beside the wrestler George Zaharias who was married to the famous golfer, Babe Zaharias. George was going to Miami to present one of the Babe’s golf clubs to President Kennedy. When I got down there, the President had to go on stage before I could meet him personally. Even so, he had a tremendous poise and presence about him which I tried to capture in the portrait. It was one of the highlights of my career as an artist. I remember receiving a letter of thanks from the President through his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, which I still have somewhere,” Jimmy notes.
Another peak in Jimmy’s storied career happened several years later when he was commissioned by the Association for the Help of Retarded Persons (AHRP) to paint the portrait of President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy. The AHRP wanted to express their appreciation to then U.S. Attorney General Kennedy for his special efforts to promote the charity. Bobby Kennedy’s daughter was mentally challenged. “I flew to New York City and presented Bobby Kennedy’s portrait to him at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel,” Jimmy remembers. “Johnny Carson was the Master of Ceremonies for the program. It was quite a production. I remember Bobby shook my hand three different times that night and thanked me over and over for his portrait. I think he liked it a lot.” The photograph of Kennedy receiving the portrait from Jimmy was published in the newspapers the following day.
During the decade of the 1960's, Jimmy’s services for celebrity portraits was in high demand. “I recall doing a portrait of Roy Rogers and got him to sign it at the Florida State Fair in Tampa,” Jimmy confirms. “I also did a pastel of Liberace about 1963 when he was in St. Petersburg doing a show at Guy Lombardo’s Portocal. Jimmy painted pop singer Dion (and the Belmonts) (“Run Around Sue”), singer Vaughn Monroe (“Let it Snow”), New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick on the Tonight Show. “I personally presented Governor Rockefeller’s portrait to him at Brown’s Hotel in upstate New York. He was a very imposing and impressive figure too,” Jimmy recalls.
Jimmy became successful enough creating portraits that he set up shop in the then new West Shore Plaza Shopping Mall in Tampa located near the airport. “People used to walk by and watch me working at the easel with a subject sitting in front and, before you knew it, they wanted a portrait too. Business was pretty good. After a while though, it was time to move on and do something else.
By 1976, Jimmy figured he had a sufficient portfolio to go calling on the art directors for the top flite book companies in New York City and see if they could use his talents. “I got my first big break from Bruce Hall at Dell Publishing,” Jimmy explains today. “Once I got going, we really worked hard to put out highest quality cover illustrations. They took usually a couple weeks to complete depending on how detailed they had to be. I could paint three or four a month at the peak. It was a busy time in my life, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”
In 1979, Jimmy was at the height of his powers in producing pastel covers for the most prestigious books in the publishing trade. He had successfully operated a studio in the Galleria Mall in Houston, but his life was about to change yet again. About that time, he came across an oil painting by artist Peter Caras of New Jersey. Caras studied under the watchful eye of American legend Norman Rockwell beginning when Caras was only 18 years old. As Rockwell’s protege, Caras developed a highly refined technique which immediately struck the eye of Mathewuse. “I went straight to Dell’s art director, Bruce Hall, and asked if he would arrange for me to meet Caras.” After a brief introduction, Jimmy committed to study under Caras. He moved to a house in 1980 only one block from Caras’ house and sat in Caras’ studio for four years absorbing all he could from the Rockwell protege. “I told Jimmy I would train him but insisted on a few restrictions,” Caras says today from his studio in Leonardo, New Jersey. “I could see that Jimmy was what I call a ‘natural’ – a ‘diamond-in-the-rough.’ I wish I had gotten him at age 15. He had so much raw talent.” But while Jimmy excelled in pastel, he had little experience in oil painting. So Caras taught Jimmy the medium of oils. Today Caras teaches out at DuCret School of Art in New Jersey and has scores of students he has instructed. “I consider Jimmy as one of my best students and a good friend too. We have collaborated on a lot of projects together, and I’ve invited Jimmy to show his works later this year at a show being put together up here in New Jersey called “Caras & Colleagues.”
Armed with the oil painting techniques from Norman Rockwell’s protege, Peter Caras, Jimmy turned his sights on another of his passions – Western and Indian art. In the 1980's, Jimmy became friendly with a handful of Seminole Indians at the Lodges in Tampa and South Florida. He was permitted to photograph and paint a number of Seminoles including “Stanford Jumper” and an alligator wrestler named “Skinny Boy.” He also asked permission to paint a young Seminole princess, Madeline. “I asked her mother if it was alright for her to sit for me,” Jimmy remembers. “We spent a long time talking about the details, and the mother even provided Madeline with her grandmother’s vivid red handmade dress which was ‘out of this world’ beautiful. Recently, Jimmy has painted “Ole Tallahassee” from the oldest known Seminole photograph in the National Archives. “I’m working on Chief Osceola and Renegade now and hope to have that done some time soon. I’d like to do some additional things like that now that I have some time.” Jimmy has also traveled to South Dakota where he studied and painted Native American tribes. “The ruggedness and distinctiveness of the Native Americans appeals to me and is a stark contrast to the softness of the young adult books,” observes Jimmy.
It is little wonder that Jimmy is attracted to Western and Native American subjects. Standing over 6'2" tall and ruggedly handsome, Jimmy could easily be cast as the double for the Marlboro Man if not Lonesome Dove. Ironically, Jimmy painted himself as the cowboy on his trusty steed for a book cover of one western title. The art director even called Jimmy to ask, “Is that really you?” “Yeah it is. I thought that was the easiest way to get a willing model to pose for me,” Jimmy laughs. “Sometimes you have to be resourceful.”
Before the height of his career, Jimmy married wife, Dolores, and had two children. They divorced and later Jimmy was blessed by two additional children. He bought a two-story house in Tarpon Springs located across the street from the Gulf of Mexico. After working all week, Jimmy relaxed while deep sea fishing on his 36-foot boat. No longer married, Jimmy decided five years ago to move up to Tallahassee and spend time with his daughter Christina and his grandchildren. Christina has the Tucker Mills Insurance Agency while her husband, Alan, works as an electrician for Hartsfield Electric at TMH.
Jimmy has painted a number of portraits for Tallahassee residents. “I still enjoy meeting people and trying to capture them on canvas,” he says. Jimmy still loves to fish in his now smaller boat and enjoys hunting with his grandson, Robbie. He has discovered that North Florida has some unique natural scenery which he has painted. And, at his birthday party last month at a local Mexican restaurant, Jimmy was serenaded by a senorita playing a violin. The next week, Jimmy returned to present her with a charcoal portrait of her to give her parents. “I thought she might like that,” Jimmy beams.
You just never know who you might run into in Tallahassee.
Jimmy Mathewuse is available by appointment for limited private commissions. Contact him at JimmyART.com.
Ole Tallahassee by James L. Mathewuse is done with pastels. The original photograph was obtained through the National Archives.