Painter, printmaker, muralist. Born in Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas (some sources wrongly indicate Kansas City), the son of Euphemia Lane Fox Blackburn (1883 – 1929) and Charles Whittle Gantt (1881 – 1952). He was the grandson and namesake of Judge James Britton Grant (1845 – 1912), a former Chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri. His father, Charles, though trained as a lawyer, suffered from alcoholism and instead worked for the railroad.
“James Gantt was just two years old when his alcoholic father abandoned him, and still young when his mother contracted tuberculosis and had to enter a sanatorium. A wealthy aunt stepped in to finish raising the boy and saw to his education, but when Gantt was a teenager his mother tried to regain custody, and he ran away from home. After some time roaming in the country working odd jobs [including working on farms, punching cattle, working in a circus, washing dishes and working as a movie stunt man], his artistic talent always in evidence, he enrolled in the Dallas Art Institute.”
He eventually settled in Texas, where in 1933, at the age of twenty-two, he enrolled as a scholarship student at the Dallas Art Institute under the painter and director of the Institute, Olin H. Travis (1888 – 1975). Due to his continued lack of funds, the following year Travis helped Gantt apply for and receive a scholarship to study at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. He began his studies there with the modernist landscape painter Ross E. Braught (1898 – 1983) followed by a full year of study with the famous regionalist painter and muralist, Thomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975).
Following his graduation from the Kansas City Art Institute he joined Benton as an apprentice, working alongside the master on his preparations for Benton’s murals for the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City, Missouri. The two became even closer due to their shared love of jazz music, which Gannt had come to adore during his youth. When Benton was fired by the Art Institute in 1939, it was Gantt and other alumni who helped organize the defense of their professor.
Gantt began exhibiting his own paintings regularly during the 1930s and was a routine participant in the Kansas City Art Institute’s major annual, the “Midwestern Artist’s Exhibition.” His first solo was held at Miss Effie Seachrest’s Little Galley in Kansas City, where he showed drawings paired with three-dimensional works by John Wisely. Reviewers took note: “The drawings by James Gantt… are curiously interesting. A fine nude demonstrates good draughtsmanship and a few abstractions display a feeling for rhythm. The young artist obviously is interested in mystical trends. Ozark Sketches in black and white and a glimpse in color of an Ozark home are among his exhibits.”
He also exhibited alongside fellow Benton acolytes in the Kansas City Art Institute’s 1936 “Thomas Hart Benton and His Students Exhibition,” where his works were mentioned in reviews of the show:
“James B. Gantt’s farmyard painting of a familiar problem of milking time inherits a sense of design from the right sources, but the average visitor hardly will notice that, for he will be torn between amusement at the joke the young farmer is playing on the calf and sympathy for the cows cheated off-spring straining at the rope by which he is tied to the fence post. The young farmer in his blue jeans calmly milks the cow. It is the calf that makes all the fuss an incidentally provides the hunger-drama for the picture. Mr. Gantt also has a good plowing scene.”
At Holiday time Gantt participated in Mrs. Thomas H. Benton’s “Midwestern Art for Midwesterner Homes Exhibition” in the Circle Building, where he was remarked as being “represented by admirable work.” That same year he married Hattie Naomi Moore (1910 – 2006), whom he had met at the Kansas City Art Institute where she was studying sculpture with William W. Rosenbauer (1900 – 1968) and painting with Thomas Hart Benton.
In 1937 Gantt was selected by the First Visitation Catholic Church in Kansas City to create and mural cycle for their house of worship based upon the theme of the life of Christ. The mural was designed as a sixteen-panel installation and was mostly completed by July of that year. It was noted at that time that Gantt “from the first has displayed promising originality… there is a grasp of great ideas in his work and unusual maturity and independence.”
He continued to show in regular exhibitions at the Kansas City Art Institute, including in the 1937 Annual “Sweepstake Exhibition,” where his work “Arcadia – Mortgaged” was remarked as being “out of the ordinary.” By 1938 he was employed by the Federal Art Project and was being considered for the commission to create murals to decorate the City Hall Auditorium in Kansas City, Kansas. Gantt created extensive cartoons for its creation, but in the end, he was rejected for the commission. According to a local historian it is “speculated the reason for this was because the political party in power objected to the labor images included in the murals.” The cartoon drawings for the proposed mural were exhibited at Midwestern Galleries in Kansas City, Missouri, that same year.
Gantt was awarded a solo exhibition of his paintings in early 1939 at the Art Institute’s Downtown Gallery in Kansas City and was one of a number of prominent artists to be selected to represent Missouri and the Midwest at the 1939 New York World's Fair held in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York. At the fair, he exhibited the painting “Kansas Pastoral,” which was remarked upon in the press as depicting a picture of “human love as a phenomenon of no interest to farm beast or fowl. The environment looks familiar to any midwesterner, even though the sweethearts go unrecognized.” The 1939 “Sweepstake Exhibition” at the Kansas City Art Institute led Gantt to a first prize for a portrait head of his wife, with a reviewer remarking “Of the painters that have come out of the Art Institute in the last few years, my vote now goes for Gantt as the one most likely to succeed.”
In 1941 forty of Gantt’s paintings were show in a solo exhibition at the Woman’s City Club in Kansas City, where a reviewer noted “None of our younger artists have worked, in my opinion, has worked more sincerely and more persistently than Gantt.” By 1942 Gantt was a Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) Art Supervisor overseeing a display of civilian defense exhibits at the civilian defense fair in North Kansas City. His last recorded submission to a major show was the 1945 opening exhibition of the Little Gallery at the University of Kansas City, Missouri, where he exhibited “The Circus.”
Following that time, Gantt began to work for major corporations as a design and promotional manager. In 1947 he joined the Coleman Company Inc., in Wichita, noting he was formerly a “professional photographer, commercial artist, radio producer and advertising copyrighter.” He remained with Coleman until 1954 when he was appointed advertising and sales promotion manager of James, Inc., a dishwasher manufacturer in Independence, Kansas. Later Gantt worked in Memphis, Tennessee as the promotions director for the Memphis Chapter of the Foundation for World Literacy before moving to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to work for the Batchelder Company.
James Britton Gantt died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Tuesday, the 21st of August 1984 at the age of seventy-two years. His burial location remains unknown.
As a painter, James Gantt mirrored a love for rural America that was espoused by his friend and mentor, Thomas Hart Benton. His works reflect Benton’s teaching and artistic style and honor his own experience of wandering across the America of the Great Depression, working odd jobs just to get by. As Gannt once remarked: “I paint only what I have lived and experienced, what I know from the ground up.” His production period appears to have been quite short, c. 1933-1947, indicating a need to have a steady income to help support is wife and three daughters.
In addition to his painting work, Gantt was a regular contributor of illustrations to the jazz magazine Swing Time. Neither he nor his wife taught but Gantt did write an unpublished memoir (location today unknown). Together they became known for their extensive collection of jazz records as well as their collection of 13th and 14th century Italian and 16th century Spanish art that was noted as being “part of one of the most extensive private collections in the Middle West.”
Though there are undoubtedly other exhibitions in which Gantt participated, those presently known include the following: Seachrest’s Little Galley, Kansas City, MO, 1935 (solo with John Wisely); Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO, 1936-40, 1941 (prize); Thomas Hart Benton and His Students, Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO, 1936; Mrs. Thomas H. Benton’s Midwestern Art for Midwesterner Homes Exhibition, Circle Building, Kansas City, MO, 1936; 4th Annual Sweepstake Exhibition, Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO, 1937, 1939 (prize); 50th Anniversary Student Exhibition, Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO, 1937; Thomas Hart Benton Student Exhibition at the Association of American Artists, New York, NY, 1937; Midwestern Galleries, Kansas City, MO, 1938 (solo, Kansas City, KS, Mural Drawings); The Art Institute’s Downtown Gallery, Kansas City, MO, 1939 (solo); World’s Fair, Flushing Meadows, NY, 1939; Woman’s City Club, Kansas City, MO, 1940, 1941 (solo); Little Gallery, University of Kansas City, MO, 1945; Franklin Riehlman Fine Art, New York, NY, 2008 (retrospective); Modern Dialect: American Paintings from the John and Susan Horseman Collection Traveling Exhibition, various U.S. locations, c. 2012-15; Painted Black: The John Surovek Collection, Museum of Art – DeLand, Deland, FL, 2015.
Gantt’s works are not presently known to be in the collection of any public institutions, however his works reside in many private collections throughout the United States.