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Hailing from a family of Southern artists, James Denmark learned at an early age to appreciate color and form. His mother, Annie Mae James, had an astute aesthetic sensibility and keen eye for interior design, creating floral arrangements and collecting antiques. While his mother was working, Denmark and his brother Joseph spent time at their grandparents’ house, which further fostered an artistic inclination. His grandmother, Kate Denmark, was an adept quilter and wire sculptor; she frequently asked an inquisitive Denmark to carefully cut patterns for her quilts. Similarly, his grandfather, Sylvester, was a noted bricklayer who incorporated unique design molds into his practice.

Denmark was raised in Winter Haven, Florida—a town that, in the 1940s, was still deeply segregated. Although his elementary school lacked an art teacher and necessary supplies, Denmark found comradery with fellow founding members of the school’s art club. As he progressed through elementary and middle school, Denmark trained himself by copying characters from well-known comic books, such as Roy Rogers and Lone Ranger, but later switched to drawing birds and carving small sculptures from lye soap.

An award-winning track and field athlete in high school, Denmark was accepted to Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee on a sports scholarship and obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 1960. At university, he studied with the artist and art historian Samella Lewis, who instilled in him a profound appreciation for African American artists. Lewis also invited prominent African American artists to lecture on campus, exposing her students to contemporary art practices. After graduating, Denmark remained in Florida for three years and then relocated to Brooklyn where he taught studio art in the public school system.

Denmark was already an established artist—working predominantly in watercolors and charcoal—when he enrolled at the Pratt Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1973, but his work soon underwent a drastic stylistic change. As part of his studies towards a master's degree, Denmark sought inspiration from some of the twentieth century’s most renowned artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, and Norman Lewis. However, it was Lawrence’s abstract, colorful style and dynamic collages that had a profound effect on Denmark’s practice. In an auspicious first encounter, Denmark, on his way to a studio class, saw Lawrence heading up the stairs to teach his afternoon session. Denmark followed the artist, attending Lawrence’s class even though he was not formally enrolled. He notes that it was Lawrence who first introduced him to Romare Bearden and Alvin Hollingsworth.

While best known for his collages, which sometimes incorporate hand-colored paper, objects, and fabric, Denmark’s watercolors, woodcut prints, and sculptures have also been exhibited widely. His work is held by numerous institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has been the subject of over sixty one-man exhibitions and has also participated in a number of group shows. In 1980, he received the prestigious Living Legends Award from the National Urban League.