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Melding Art and Medicine

Everette James M.D. '63
Everette James
Courtesy Everette James

Everette James has spent his life combining a career as a radiologist with a personal interest in collecting art. As professor and chair of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s department of radiology and radiological sciences from 1975 to 1991, he helped transform a fledgling operation into a vibrant clinical and academic program.

Along the way, he championed bringing art and the humanities into hospital settings through exhibitions, lectures, and other events. He also wrote hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and dozens of books on science, medicine, folklore, and art, including American Art: Thoughts of a Collector and North Carolina Art Pottery 1900-1960. And in the early 1980s, he wrote a monograph for Eastman Kodak on using digital radiography in the analysis of paintings, a method that became a standard tool for determining a painting’s age and condition.

As a boy growing up in eastern North Carolina, James started collecting foreign coins (“I’m a killer at Jeopardy! because coin collecting taught me about geography,” he says), eventually branching out into Impressionist paintings and North Carolina pottery and quilts.

“I really got interested in buying and collecting art when I was a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School,” he says. “I saw an Impressionist exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and liked them so much I decided to start collecting Impressionist artists. Once I started pricing them, I realized I couldn’t afford the frames, much less the paintings, so I decided to focus on women artists who were under-recognized. And I did it on a resident’s salary.”

Some of those early pieces that he purchased for a few thousand dollars appreciated in value to be worth as much as $30,000, so James would sell a piece here and there to finance his expanding collection and branch into other directions, such as American folk art and indigenous crafts. With every phase of collecting, he delved deeply into the background of an art form’s evolution and influences, such as the impact of the land on Southern artists’ world views, and how techniques and designs made by African-American quilters during and after the Civil War provide clues to life during Reconstruction.

James has also shared his collections with a wider audience. He turned a historic Primitive Baptist church in his hometown of Robersonville, North Carolina, into a folkart museum called St. James Place. And he frequently lends works to museums for solo and group exhibitions, including the Charlotte Museum of History and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum, which featured some of his pottery in “Tradition in Clay: Two Centuries of Classic North Carolina Pots,” an exhibition held earlier this year.

James and his wife, Nancy Farmer, have begun donating portions of their collections to museums and centers, including the North Carolina Museum of History and N.C. State University. Earlier this year, the couple made a gift of Nell Cole Graves pottery to the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove.

Not one to slow down in retirement, James has put the finishing touches on Knights in White, a novel about academic medicine, and is writing the accompanying text for a book, Painting in North Carolina, 1850-1950.


—Bridget Booher