“Claire Hinkle” was on display during Hinkle’s inaugural exhibit at Milan Gallery.
“Claire Hinkle” was on display during Hinkle’s inaugural exhibit at Milan Gallery.

Bluesman James Hinkle is trading in his guitar pick for a paintbrush. But don’t think he’s starting over.

The 55-year-old native Fort Worthian has had a 30-year career in which he performed at Lincoln Center, toured Europe, and wowed audiences across the American Southwest. But his passion for the visual arts started when he was just 9, long before he ever picked up a six-string. He kept painting and drawing throughout high school in the mid-1970s, around the time he first learned to play the guitar.

When Hinkle entered Tarrant County Junior College, now Tarrant County College, he set out to work on an associate’s degree in art. Four years into the two-year program — yes, Hinkle is lightheartedly aware of the discrepancy — one of his teachers, Eduardo Aguilar, encouraged him to put together a portfolio to submit to the University of Texas at Austin for a scholarship. It worked, but while at UT, Hinkle got sucked into Austin’s vibrant live music scene and started gigging with various blues bands.


“By the time I was in college, I was really into music,” he said. “After [graduating], I promptly hit the road, Jack!”

Austin City Limits, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, tours of Canada, Mexico, the states, and Europe — all fall under the “been there, done that” umbrella of Hinkle’s career. Not to mention that the list of musicians with whom he has shared stages reads like a who’s-who of regional legends: Buddy Miles, Johnny Reno, John Lee Hooker,  Marcia Ball, Delbert McClinton — the list goes on. Music left little time for painting. “When you’re a musician on the road, your focus is split,” he said.

After three decades, the realities of life on the road began to wear him down. He’s proud of his career but clearly ready to move on. “I’ve had a great run at music,” he said. “It has taken me everywhere, and now I’m in my mid-50s, with a 12-year-old daughter, and happily married. The road just doesn’t hold anything for me anymore.”

The reality of Fort Worth’s current blues scene hasn’t done much to change his mind. “We’ve hit a slump here in the first part of the century,” he said. “With the blues, I’ve seen my pay go from making $300 [per gig] to splitting $300 between several musicians. It just isn’t the same.”

Hinkle found his way back to his first love with a little help from Big Tex. The night after that affable behemoth of a cowboy, who for decades had welcomed visitors to the Texas State Fair, went into forced retirement thanks to a spectacular fire, Hinkle had a dream. “I woke up the next morning with the words ‘You gotta paint Big Tex burning’ seared in my psyche,” he said.

What started out as a personal project quickly drew attention and that all-important question artists live for — “How much you want for that?”

That was all the motivation Hinkle needed. After quickly learning how to make prints, he began a dialogue with two childhood friends, Rhome and Tal Milan, co-owners and directors of Milan Gallery downtown.

The result was an exhibition. Running through early June at Milan Gallery, James Hinkle: Portraits from Texas Music featured his fiery depiction of Big Tex.

Tal said the opening on Friday, May 31, was a huge success. “The gallery was full of hundreds of patrons and smiles all around,” he said.

Hinkle has his sights set on the North Side for his next project, Faces of the North Side, a collection of portraits of past and present friends. The community is behind him.

“James knows how to capture the passion of his subjects in the colors he uses,” said Eva Bonilla, board member of the Hispanic Women’s Network. “The people in his paintings seem to have life and movement. He can play a mean guitar and yet paint a masterpiece.”

Though Hinkle won’t be on stage much, he feels he’s leaving the music scene in good hands. He’s especially fond of Quaker City Night Hawks, Josh Weathers Band, and The Hanna Barbarians.

Hinkle said that as long as he can communicate with genuine people and touch them through art, the medium seems to matter little. “I’m digging where I’m at right now,” he said.