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Mosaic art by James ‘Jimmy’ Payne, who struggled with homelessness, celebrated in Vancouver exhibit

Artwork of Vancouver man who died last year will be displayed at St. Paul Lutheran Church

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 2, 2024, 6:05am
5 Photos
James Payne&rsquo;s artwork is being celebrated this weekend at St. Paul Lutheran Church.
James Payne’s artwork is being celebrated this weekend at St. Paul Lutheran Church. (Contributed photo) Photo Gallery

James “Jimmy” Payne told his sister multiple times throughout his life that when he died his artwork would become famous.

Payne died in October at the age of 63. He was one of the 43 people connected to Clark County’s homeless community who died last year.

Starting Friday, Payne’s artwork will be celebrated at an exhibit called “Remembering James Payne: A Retrospective Art Exhibit.” The showcase at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1309 Franklin St., Vancouver, will display about 20 pieces of Payne’s work.

“I’m very excited and very touched about the show,” said Vickie Davis, Payne’s sister. “It’s going to be a really neat thing to see his art through other people’s eyes.”

If You Go

What: “Remembering James Payne: A Retrospective Art Exhibit.”

When: 5-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Monday, Tuesday
and Wednesday.

Where: St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1309 Franklin St., Vancouver.

Information: stpaulvancouver.com

Jimmy the artist

Born and raised in Vancouver, Payne was hardworking all his life and quite the entrepreneur from an early age, Davis said.

She remembers as a child her brother would go to the American Legion hall with their grandma to play bingo. When their grandmother began complaining that the hall didn’t sell food, Payne set up shop and began selling snacks to the bingo players.

In adulthood, Payne worked for a while as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter and took photography classes at Clark College. He was also a father of two daughters he loved dearly, Davis said.

He would spend whatever time he had outdoors. Davis remembers her brother doing multiple kayaking trips from Vancouver to Astoria, Ore.

His admiration for nature and passion for photography helped his art career. He depicted such local landmarks as Beacon Rock and Multnomah Falls.

In the 1990s, while working at a flooring company, he asked the owner what the most expensive flooring he could make was. When Payne learned that tiled mosaics go for upwards of $200 per square foot, he learned the craft.

“Within 24 hours, I completed my first mosaic,” Payne wrote in a 2021 artist statement.

In 2000, Payne started his company, Unique Portrait Mosaics, to complete mosaics in Vancouver homes. In his artist biography, he recalls creating mosaics on all the floors, countertops, walls and ceilings in a seven-bedroom home.

To create his art, Payne broke ceramic mugs into small bits, which he then pieced together and affixed with hand-mixed grout.

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Payne eventually became a regular vendor at the Vancouver Farmers Market. Within his first month, he sold 50 mosaic pictures, he wrote. After this, he decided to go on an art quest and traveled to eight art galleries around the Northwest, from Central Washington to Lincoln City, Ore.

One of his pieces was displayed in the now-defunct indoor farmers market in 2006 and St. Paul Lutheran Church’s Rev. Linda Marousek spotted it one night.

“The light just glinted on his art, and it shined through the darkness in the closed building,” Marousek said.

Marousek asked around about who made the artwork and eventually met Payne. Payne introduced himself as “Jimmy Payne, regional tile artist.”

Marousek purchased several of Payne’s pieces throughout the years, and his artwork hangs on the walls around her home.

“I’ve always loved his use of colors,” Marousek said. “He was very enthusiastic about his work and very kind about it.”

She said Payne would write a customized message on the back of his pieces. One addressed to her states, “I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed making it.”

In 2008, the housing market crashed, and Payne’s art sales stalled, he wrote. Payne took eight years off from the farmers market and instead donated his mosaic artwork to community members. He donated one piece as a raffle grand prize for a local concert series attended by more than 2,000 people.

“My name echoed on the loud speakers three or four times a night,” Payne wrote. “I would be on stage to give the mosaic picture away and sign the picture to the lucky winner.”

He eventually returned to the farmers market part-time and sold 500 pieces that season. Payne recalls in his biography he sold his work to people from Canada, South Korea, Japan and Italy.

Marousek met Payne again when he stayed at St. Paul Lutheran Church’s men’s shelter in the winter of 2021. He decorated part of the shelter with his artwork.

Davis said her brother struggled with addiction most of his adult life and was homeless off and on for years. But at the time of his death, Payne had housing.

He died from an overdose in October, according to his sister.

“He lost a lot to it (addiction) and eventually his life,” Davis said.

Payne wrote that his long-term goal was to move to Modesto, Calif., and apply for the farmers market there. He planned for his vendor tent to have a mosaic tile floor “so people can see and feel it,” he wrote.

Eventually, he dreamed his artwork would go international.

“If you have a dream and you chase it, if you catch that dream incredible things can happen,” Payne wrote.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.