In Memoriam: J.R. Hamil (1937-2022)

J.R. Hamil in his studio (Julie Denesha/KCUR 89.3)

J.R. Hamil — Jim to all who knew him — passed away on Jan. 14, 2022, after a career in art that spanned more than 60 years.

Paintings and prints that bear his name hang in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes and offices, schools and churches throughout the region.

Best known for images of the Country Club Plaza, Loose Park and the city’s finest architecture, Hamil’s watercolors were a boost to business for local frame shops.

Jamie Lavin from the Buttonwood Art Space says of his colleague and friend, “It’s hard to put sincerity into paintings, but Jim knew how to do it.”

His work, Lavin told KCUR, was “accessible,” and “gave people an excuse to buy something they liked.”

He was certainly prolific, completing two to three paintings per week. Despite a mild stroke in 2009, he continued his studio work.

His son, artist Alex Hamil, remembers him in the 1980s, ensconced in the “fortress of solitude,” with a cup of coffee and classical music playing in the background.

“He was like a freight train coming down the tracks. He really flourished in there.”

Jim’s work ethic started at home. His father, former Kansas City Councilman Harold Hamil, grew up on a beet farm in eastern Colorado. Other family members still work the land in various ways.

Jim chose a different, but equally difficult path.

At KU, his pen and ink sketches of buildings on campus brought an early taste of commercial success. After graduation, he headed straight for Hallmark. Fifteen years later, he set out to generate work on his own.

Painting landmarks definitely helped pay the bills,” Alex says. “But his real passion was reflecting the agrarian landscape.”

In 1975, Hamil contributed illustrations to a book written by his father called “Farmland U.S.A.” Later he and his wife Sharon (described by Alex as “his biggest cheerleader”) teamed up on “Return to Kansas” and “Colorado Treasures.”

He traveled often to New Mexico and other southwestern sites to render his version of the simple beauty he found there.

The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College recently acquired one of his rural panoramas, “Scattered High Clouds.”

Bruce Hartman, the museum’s executive director and chief curator at the time, praised the painting’s stark depiction of storm clouds over the plains as “a quintessential Midwestern image.”

Hartman also noted that when the school’s Cultural Education Center opened in 1990, Hamil was commissioned to paint a representation of the building as part of the gala celebration.

That wasn’t unusual. Hamil often lent his time and talents to civic endeavors and charitable causes — from campaigns to rehab fountains in the Northland to auctions on public TV.

His was a familiar face at art shows and festivals. And despite his stature, Lavin says the artist “was always humble and happy to share a story with others.”

One other group played a huge role in Hamil’s legacy — students — both in the workshops he led and the many schools he visited.

Loreta Feeback served as a “picture lady” — an outreach effort that brought art into classrooms a few decades back.

She recalls watching as Hamil transfixed a roomful of kids at Tomahawk School in Overland Park.

“They were absolutely in awe,” she says. “They’d never seen anyone paint up close like that. And he was smiling the whole time. You could tell he really loved what he was doing.”

Randy Mason

Randy Mason is best known for his work in public television, but he’s also covered Kansas City arts and artists in print and on the radio for more than three decades.

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