Grace on display |

Grace on display

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO Colorado
HL Artist Van Fossan 3 DT 11-14-11

Each of the five women in the portraits holds something she cherishes. The sweet-faced grandmother clutches a Bible to her chest. A young mother cradles her first child. A pretty tattooed woman holds her apron. The dark-haired beauty balances ripe red tomatoes in one hand, a fistful of dry spaghetti in the other. A hummingbird perches on the finger of a 40-something brunette.

The paintings are the centerpiece of a show on display at Olney Gallery in Phoenix through Jan. 2 for contemporary realism painter James Van Fossan.

“They’re all representations of grace,” said Van Fossan, 47, a soft-spoken, exceedingly humble artist. “It’s about how small we are compared to the vastness.”

Van Fossan relocated from Arizona to Eagle with his wife and their toddler Sophia last spring. He met his wife, Leigh Ann, an Eagle County native, at a gallery outside of Phoenix were she was working and his paintings were hanging.

“I was selling his work before I met him,” she said. “He came in with some new paintings and we talked for two or three hours straight.”

Now she does all of his public relations and marketing and represents him. Leigh Ann missed her family, and wanted to be closer to them. Van Fossan was ready to start painting mountains. They moved back here in March.

Now that he’s here, Van Fossan finds inspiration everywhere, at all times, even when the couple is late for church. Or driving down the interstate. Last month he stopped his car on the side of the road as he was driving from Eagle to Avon.

“I took some pictures of that beautiful red mountain by Eagle, which looks a lot like Sedona (Ariz.),” Van Fossan said. “It was just perfect – there was a light dusting of snow, with the blue sky behind it. It just jumped out at me. I snapped a bunch of photos.”

Walt Horton Fine Art gallery in Beaver Creek carries his paintings, predominately portraits of people and stunning skyscapes.

“It is said that an artist paints what he sees. If that is true, then the world that James Van Fossan sees is void of nefarious, quotidian vices and instead is brimming with beauty, kindness and personal resolve,” said Aiste Parmasto, Van Fossan’s Phoenix art representative.

Van Fossan is one of two local artists the Walt Horton exhibits.

“He works in a photo realistic manner, and it’s flawless, as far as I’m concerned,” said Larissa Wild Gould, the gallery director. “He captures translucency of skin, the delicacy of lace and the transience of clouds in a such a sophisticated manner. People are drawn to his work; they comment on how many different shades of blue there is in his skies.”

Looking at Van Fossan’s work, one would think he’s been painting for three, maybe even four decades. But this self-taught artist has only been at it six years.

“He’s an artist for people to keep their eye on,” Gould said. “The sophistication of his work as an emerging artist far exceeds that of artists who have been in the profession for a long time.”

Right now a painting of Van Fossan’s titled “You Better Not Cry,” is on display at the gallery. It’s the first thing you see when you walk through the door. In the painting, a beautiful fair-skinned baby cries, her mouth open wide, as she sits on Santa’s lap. The terrified baby is Sophia, the couple’s daughter, and Santa doesn’t exactly look surprised, but more resigned, as in this isn’t the first baby that’s bawled on his lap. The piece has a Norman Rockwell feel to it. In fact Van Fossan is a bit of a modern-day Rockwell, with those same spot-on human expressions, and more painterly details.

“Expressions – that’s just something I could always do,” Van Fossan said.

All day long, Gallery Associate Kate Bennett listens as people comment about the painting.

“A lot of people say the same thing, that it’s got a really clever title and is just a sweet picture,” Bennett said. “People can really relate to it. They say, ‘Oh, that reminds me of my kid.’ It seems to bring back a lot of memories.”

Under his mom’s encouragement, Van Fossan began drawing when he was a kindergartener but when he hit his teenage years, he put the pencil down and picked up the guitar. It would be more than two decades until he started drawing again. His first series of graphite drawings were of a rodeo near his home at the time in Casa Grande, Ariz. The black and white drawings of horses and cowboys look like photographs and won awards at the Phippen Museum Western Art Show in Prescott, but galleries were hesitant to take them.

“Paintings, those are what sells, they told me,” Van Fossan said.

That’s about the time Van Fossan met Duffy Sheridan, a self-taught realist oil painter who Van Fossan considers a mentor.

“Duffy invited me to his studio,” Van Fossan said. “He’s very generous. I just watched what he did … we talked about the philosophy of painting, and what makes art beautiful. It’s not just about technique, you have to have an eye for what makes beauty within a painting, and make it count.”

Van Fossan is making it count.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or

Support Local Journalism