Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lightning Strikes in Cooperstown

We've had some turbulent weather lately here in upstate New York, and every once in a while, when it thunders and lightnings, I think of Jimmy Litz.

James C. Litz was born in Buffalo, New York in 1948. He graduated from high school in the late 1960s, but never had a chance to enter a trade or begin a career. At the age of eighteen he was drafted into the Army to serve in Vietnam. Jimmy served with Company D of the 7th Air Cavalry, the same unit, he noted, that General George Armstrong Custer lost at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Jimmy left Oakland on his nineteenth birthday and arrived in Vietnam at 1 am the next day. He spent his tour of duty with a machine gun unit in the jungles along the South China Sea coast. Here's a photo Jimmy later sent me of himself (on the right) with a buddy, Leo Parker of Dallas, Texas.

Returning to civilian life was extremely difficult. Jimmy recalled that it was impossible for him to take orders from anyone in authority, and so he moved from job to job and turned to alcohol to escape what he saw as a ruined life. His family helped whenever they could, asking Jimmy to do odd jobs that even included entertaining his nephews. At one such babysitting gig, in the early 1980s, he decided to draw some pictures in pencil and have the boys color them. Jimmy enjoyed drawing so much that he bought paints and began to create lively, colorful versions of his sketches.

Jimmy became well known as a folk artist in Buffalo thanks to a local gallery owner and artist, Tony Sisti, and even got some words of encouragement from Will Moses, the grandson of Grandma Moses. But it was a fateful day in 1986 that will forever remain in my mind when I think of Jimmy.

It was mid-afternoon on August 2, and Jimmy and his wife Beverly were enjoying a trip to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. All of a sudden a violent storm kicked up, with torrential rain, high winds, and frightful lightning. Several blocks away from their car, Jimmy and Beverly ran for their lives to the nearest house and frantically knocked on the door to be let in.

The house they entered happened to be the home of Louis C. and Agnes Halsey Jones, pioneering scholars in the field of American folk art. Lou, of course, was the retired Director of our museum, and had formed our great folk art collection in the 1940s and 1950s. Jimmy thoroughly charmed the Joneses, and neither party could believe their luck. Before long, Jimmy was at the Fenimore Art Museum with a portfolio of paintings and we had his work in the permanent collection. I show two of his works here: The Buffalo Bisons War Memorial Stadium from 1987 and Birds, Butterflies, and Survival from 1990. I got to know Jimmy well over the ensuing years, and even visited him in Buffalo. His health began to fail in 2000, when he had to stop painting, and he died of complications from diabetes in 2009.

Jimmy was one of the nicest, most upbeat people I've ever met. He reveled in his life as an artist, saying that painting was "the only real time I am able to communicate what's going on inside my head." Judging from his beautiful paintings, he had negotiated a peace with the world that served everyone well. And judging from the lightning storm, he may well have had someone else looking out for him.


  1. I enjoyed this story. Nice to hear a happy ending for a Vietnam Vet!

  2. Jimmy was an american hero. I watched his documentary with the NY State Military Museum and found him to have such a good heart and a wonderful person. To me he is an american icon.


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