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Artist J.R. Hamil, famous for his watercolors of Kansas City landmarks, dies at 84

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Watercolorist J.R. Hamil paints in his studio in 2015. He was known for landscapes of the prairie, the Country Club Plaza, and other iconic regional landscapes.

Hamil's professional art career started at Hallmark in 1958. The artist is best known for his watercolors of regional landmarks, like the Country Club Plaza, and prairie landscapes.

Kansas City artist James R. Hamil, known for his Kansas prairie landscapes and Country Club Plaza watercolors, died on Friday at the age of 84.

For decades, Hamil’s watercolors of regional landmarks and landscapes were everywhere — in window displays on the Plaza and in Brookside, in shopping malls, and on the walls of area residents’ homes.

“The phenomenal thing about Jim was that he was for every man and every woman. He was their excuse to buy something they liked,” said artist Jamie Lavin, director of Buttonwood Art Space in Kansas City.

In an interview with KCUR in 2015, Hamil recounted being recognized at the local hardware store.

"The clerk over at Ace Hardware, I gave her my name because I didn't have my card with me. And I told her and she said, 'Are you the artist?' And I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Oh, I have one of your paintings.’ And then the lady behind me said, ‘I have a couple of them, too.’ And then the third man said, ‘Hey, I'm in a hurry. Can you move it on?’ And I was a little embarrassed, but I was also kind of pleased. It gives you a real boost."

Hamil's career spanned more than six decades.

Iconic Kansas City landmarks, such as Loose Park, are featured in J.R. Hamil's work, including this one titled "Loose Park Skaters" (1982).

Hamil was born in Hastings, Nebraska. His father was a journalist, and the family moved to New York City and later to Lincoln, Nebraska and then St. Louis, Missouri, before settling in the Kansas City area in the early 1950s.

He graduated from Shawnee Mission (now North) High School in 1954 and studied art at the University of Kansas. To help support himself, he sold pen and ink drawings of campus buildings, as well as pastel portraits, to other students.

In 1958, Hamil embarked on a 15-year career at Hallmark Cards, Inc., designing books, calendars, greeting cards and wrapping paper. His stint at Hallmark included a watercolor lesson for President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the mid-1960s.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Brushes rest on a palette as watercolorist J.R. Hamil works in his studio in 2015.

"Things happen that you're not even expecting, and sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's not so good," Hamil told KCUR about working in watercolors. "But watercolor will do that. It'll surprise you. And I like it that for that reason."

Hamil opened his own studio in 1972 to focus on painting full-time for galleries, such as American Legacy Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, and Colony Bistro in Overland Park, Kansas, and commissions.

J.R. Hamil's painting "Mound City" was included in a collaboration with his dad, Harold Hamil, called "Farmland, U.S.A."

Over the decades, Hamil collaborated on several books with his father, Harold Hamil, contributing artwork to “Farmland, U.S.A.” and to his father’s two memoirs. He also created watercolors for two books written with his late wife, Sharon Hamil, “Return to Kansas” and “Colorado Treasures.”

Lavin, who started in the art business as a teenager at his parents’ gallery says Hamil’s work was accessible.

“Let’s say, we’d have a Marc Chagall print. And they’d look at it,” Lavin recalled of watching people browse the gallery. “And then they’d see Jim Hamil’s prints on our wall. And that’s what they wanted. They wanted something they could relate to.”

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Watercolorist J.R. Hamil paints in his studio in 2015.

Hamil is survived by his two sons, Andy and Alex.

Alex Hamil, who’s also an artist, said that his father had been battling dementia, following a stroke about a decade ago. He said that “things kind of took a downward spin in recent months.”

J.R. Hamil died Friday at Brookdale of Overland Park assisted living facility in the hospice care unit.

Hamil's legacy, said Alex, continues on through his artwork, as well as inspiring artists of all ages.

“He would go around to schools and demonstrate his watercolor techniques," said Alex, "and certainly inspire kids to, you know, see that in action."

He added, "And it's one thing to see something up on the walls, but it's another thing to see it actually developed.”

KCUR's Julie Denesha contributed to this report.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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