James Seawright, kinetic sculptor and ‘godfather of creative arts at Princeton’, dies at 85
James Seawright, artist and professor of visual arts at the Lewis Center for the Arts, emeritus, died Feb. 12 of complications from Parkinson’s disease at home under hospice care in Middletown, New York. He was 85 years old.
He is recognized as one of the greatest technological artists and creators of kinetic sculpture, with works in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Princeton University Art Museum and other museums around the world.
After seeing Seawright’s work in the 1967 Whitney Annual, Edmund “Mike” Keeley, Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 English Teacher, Emeritus, and Professor of English and Creative Writing, Emeritus, invited Seawright coming to Princeton. He joined the faculty in 1974 and was has been part of the visual arts program for three decades, making fundamental changes and extensions to the program, housed at 185 Nassau St. It was upgraded to emeritus status in 2009.
Seawright was born May 22, 1936 in Jackson and grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi. After earning his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Mississippi, he served as a naval operations and engineering lieutenant. On board ships, he uses his skill with machinery to teach himself the basics of carving. When he was released, he studied at the Art Students League in New York.
He has also worked with sound and lighting for several decades, including as technical director of the eponymous dance company run by his 62-year-old wife, Mimi Garrard.
“As Patron of Creative Arts at Princeton, Jim warmly welcomed me into the family at 185 Nassau when I became director of the theater and dance program in 1993,” said Michael Cadden, University Lecturer in Theater at the Lewis Center for the Arts and Acting President of the Lewis Center.
“The virtue I most associate with Jim is hospitality,” Cadden said. “It’s a word now worn out in commercial usage, but it once spoke of having to greet and give a warm welcome to anyone who came to your door. He and Mimi were famous for their gatherings around gumbo à la house ‘Vis Arts’ – their home on Bank Street. Jim fed me with his good food and good advice.”
“James Seawright was a kind colleague whose gentle, caring demeanor belied the feverish intellectual activity that inspired his groundbreaking kinetic sculptures,” said Paul Muldoon, the Howard GB Clark ’21 University Professor of Humanities and Professor of Creative Writing at the Lewis Center for the Arts. “The fact that these sculptures are “interactive” is due in large part to his own gregarious nature. Jim Seawright was a generous man, not only in the portion sizes at his legendary gumbo dinners, but in his mentorship of generations of Princeton visual arts students.
Seawright and Emmet Gowin, renowned American photographer and professor of visual arts at the Lewis Center for the Arts, emeritus, were longtime friends and colleagues, often traveling to the tropics to share a common interest in insects – a passion born of travel in Ecuador in 1997, where Seawright and his wife invited Gowin to come and study Spanish with a woman whose family happened to be professional insect collectors.
“Jim Seawright was one of the smartest people I knew at Princeton, and also one of the few who retained their sense of wonder throughout a long and full life,” said said Gowin. “Jim was also a compassionate advocate for our students. He was always fair but also upheld the highest standards. His southern attitude was coupled with a generosity that characterized the spirit of 185 Nassau during the 30 years he was director. Jim also might have had the best southern accent in Princeton.
Gowin said Seawright’s mastery of technology and artistry permeated his teaching. When one of Gowin’s students wanted to build a replica of a 5″x7 Deardorff camera, Seawright came to the rescue.
“The program had a vintage pattern that the student copied perfectly in wood, then folded his own fabric bellows,” he recounted. “However, the gears and focus tracks were beyond his experience. ‘That’s no problem,’ Jim said. ‘I’ll make them for you. Better yet, I’ll show you how to make them yourself.’ he camera not only looked great but, thanks to Jim, it also worked.
Carol Rigolot, who served as executive director of the Humanities Council from 1977 to 2013, worked hand-in-hand with Seawright during the period when visual and performing arts programs fell under the auspices of the Humanities Council before the creation of the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2008.
“If Leonardo da Vinci had been from Mississippi, he might have looked like Jim Seawright,” she said. “Behind Jim’s southern pace and calmness was a genius polymath who grew orchids in his office, tracked butterflies in Costa Rica, collected weavings in Guatemala, cooked delicious Creole okra for his co-workers, and read libraries of books – all of this on top of creating the art he was famous for. A pioneer of computing, Jim brought science and technology to the creation of sculptures. Anyone who passed through Logan Airport, Terminal C, during decades at the turn of our century would have seen its wall of 121 intricately louvered mirrors where weary passengers could revel in a kaleidoscopic fantasy.
“I’ve never met Jim Seawright, but he’s active in my imagination,” said Jeff Whetstone, professor of visual arts at the Lewis Center for the Arts and program director. “The Faculty of Art and Archeology that knew him pulls me aside whenever they have the chance to remember him fondly. I try to imagine what kind of amazing person could run this program for so many decades and be so well loved and keep such loyal friends.
During his tenure as director, Seawright oversaw two studio renovations and the establishment of the James M. Stewart ’32 Film Theater at 185 Nassau St. status had been the rule when he joined the University. He expanded course offerings to include film and video as well as digital photography and was the first faculty member to offer a course in computer-aided imaging.
In 2004, he received the Howard T. Behrman Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities.
In 2009, the Lewis Center for the Arts established the Jim Seawright Award in Visual Arts, awarded annually to a student whose work exemplifies outstanding originality or innovation in any medium in the visual arts curriculum.
He had two exhibitions at the Princeton University Art Museum:Sculpture by James Seawright” in 1970 and “Four Works by James L. Seawright” in 1993-94.
Many of his former students remembered his generous mentorship and warmth.
“His soft southern accent and courteous manner made him a very easy-going person in a department of big personalities,” said Hovey Brock, a 1980 alumnus, visual artist and writer. “I took an introductory sculpting course with him and learned not only the technique, but also how to think about the “whys” of making art.”
Mary Weatherford, a 1984 graduate and painter, said Seawright had a huge impact on her life.
“I wouldn’t be the artist that I am without Professor Seawright’s ‘Sculpture 101’,” she said. “In his measured, patient, Southern way, Jim taught me how to use power tools and saws, how to build things, and how to make things run smoothly. I remember Jim descending a short ladder facing forward. “Like a sailor,” he said. My heart is filled with gratitude for studying with Jim Seawright.
Fazal Sheikh, photographer and 1987 alumnus, who returned to Princeton as Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor of Environment and Humanities and Visiting Professor at the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2018-19, and is currently the artist-in-residence at the High Meadows Environmental Institute, likened the visual arts program to a family home with Seawright at the helm.
“My life has been forever changed by the atmosphere created by Jim and the amazing artists and mentors he brought together with such care and enthusiasm,” Sheikh said. “I frankly consider my time with Jim, and on this program, to be some of the most defining and formative years of my life, and my development as an artist. More than three decades later, I often reminisce about snippets of conversations I had with Jim and with others on the program, as a source of comfort and to strengthen my resolve to carry on, to continue working as a artist in the world. ”
Seawright is survived by his wife, Mimi Garrard, son James Andrew Seawright, daughter-in-law Nicole Seawright, grandson Samuel Seawright, granddaughter Hayden Seawright, sister-in-law Rebecca Seawright and many cousins, nieces and nephews.
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