James Bates: From Athlete to Artist

By Nicole Irving, Publisher and Editor-In-Chief
[Originally published in 2016]

When you have spent the majority of your youth on the football field, the thought of venturing out into a new field can be somewhat of a daunting move, but James Bates did just that. From athlete to artist, he has traded in his arsenal of plays and jerseys for a paintbrush and canvas, all along being true to his inner passions and finding new success along the way.

We recently met up with the local celebrity at his home in Gainesville for a photo shoot. A colorful metal rooster met us first at the gate, and within moments, Mr. James Bates himself let us in. He politely greeted us and welcomed us to help ourselves to his studio for our photos as he finished up a conference call, one of many he has to take to prepare for his broadcasting job.

We hopped out of the car and I tiptoed my way along the decorative stone pathway, careful not to sink my heels into the soft ground, up to his art studio, which sits behind his 1970s butter-yellow home that he shares with his wife, Tina, and their three children, Jake, 18, Talia, 15, and Georgia, 13. Complete with a concrete picnic table and sparkling pool, the home is lined with original artwork by none other than Bates himself.

As I entered his studio, I wondered if I had accidentally taken the wrong path. It’s a barn, however the exterior is not the classic red painted slats, but instead lined with license plates, which he later told us were purchased from a boy’s ranch in Nebraska.

I made my way to the back of the barn, and I realized that I was, in fact, in the right place. There were brushes, paint cans and almost finished canvasses all around. There were no art books, professional paint swatches or even a smock lying around. Instead there were chickens, a friendly rooster and a blooming banana tree outside the window. His studio was adorned with an eclectic collection of Gator sports paraphernalia, other random collectibles and every so often, I caught a glimpse of his children’s presence, as their own artwork and portraits were displayed one the walls.

Bates joined us and he settled right into the studio, which engulfed him like a warm hug. Large and small pieces of his creation were sprawled in corners, nooks and cubbies. You could see where his creative mind had been at work, yet it never strayed too far from his roots as a football star — the main theme of his folktale pieces. Steve Spurrier, Tim Tebow, Michael Phelps and others find themselves as the inspiration for Bates’ pieces. His mediums include acrylics, house paint, canvas, wood and even old barn tin roofs. But, he has also been known to dive into a dumpster or two to find the perfect tossed piece of metal. That is how the barn studio came to be.

“I always got in trouble, in our last house. All of my paints and dumpster diving finds were not ideal with our small garage [so] the barn is perfect! The chickens remind me of places like Laie, Hawaii, Key West and Costa Rica — some of my favorite places. Plus if I’m tied up in the barn and a kid needs a ride home, we always have half a dozen eggs to run out to the curb as a thank you!”

Today, Bates paints and talks about football more than he plays. As a sports broadcaster, Bates’ painting time shares the stage with his television career, which has won him three regional Emmy awards.

“I was an All-SEC linebacker and co-captain of the 1996 National Championship team and part of four SEC Championships. Naturally, I just slid right into broadcasting (football at first) shortly after graduation,” said Bates.

Talking and painting about football seem to be a perfect fit for Bates, who comes from a strong football family. However, unlike his brother and father, Bates found a different route to stay connected to the game.

“My father and brother were both football coaches (both were in college and the NFL). They were what you would call ‘students of the game’ really into the Xs and the Os. I wasn’t really wired like that. I love the human-interest side of football. I love football for the people and the traditions and the stories. I love to listen to those stories. I love to tell stories, I love football and I love to paint … it all just kind of fits together with my football folk art pieces.”

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As our cameras snapped photos of the former linebacker in his element, we couldn’t help but notice the pride he has in his paintings. He arranged each one so that they were placed at just the right angle for each photo. Just like a museum docent who maneuvers Picasso and Renoir, Bates slowly adjusted each canvas with a gentle ease. His love of painting is obvious. “I just love to create things that make people happy, from scratch. It is so exciting to see people like my art. I put a lot of myself into all of my art and when somebody decides that something that I created would make them happy or would make their home a better place, [it] is such a cool feeling to me,” said Bates. “I always ask for the buyers of my art to send me a picture of the piece in its new home. I think that some people think that I am joking, but I’m very serious about that! I love to see where it goes.”

After our photos were over, Bates welcomed us into his home. Again, tiptoeing down the creative pathway, I couldn’t help but to stand in awe of his outdoor pieces. The large urban works of art are painted on metal and sealed to withstand the Florida elements. As we entered, we saw some of his most prized pieces, including the larger than life piece of Michael Phelps. It is fitting that this piece resides in his home, as his wife, Tina, is the head coach of the Buchholz High School swimming team and was named the Girls’ Swimming Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association for 2016.

In the last 10 years, Bates’ painting career has blossomed. His first piece, a gift for his wife, captured the spot where he proposed, the Little Pigeon River in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

That piece hangs proudly in his home office. Above, one of his Emmy awards stands guard on a shelf. Today, Bates also takes on commissioned work. Currently, he is working on seven pieces.

“It makes me so proud that people trust me with gifts for friends and family or for their home. It is really hard to say ‘no’ when somebody asks me to create something for them,” said Bates.

The former football player turned artist has found his balance. Making people happy is what keeps him motivated and inspires him to keep painting. He credits Tina for the reason he has pursued art. “She has always believed in me and let me be me,” he said.

So, what is next for Bates? He’ll be adding the title “teacher” to his repertoire this spring at UF with a course on Play by Play/ On Air Talent. As if that wasn’t enough, he is working on a new documentary series with his production company, b8sy productions, entitled “Head Ball Coach Stories,” a collection of stories on Coach Steve Spurrier.

So, how does this father, husband, sportscaster and artist balance all his many roles? “My work and my painting IS MY BALANCE. When my television work and my travel get hectic, I HAVE to paint. It is so therapeutic to me and even with commissioned paintings, I never see them as work,” said Bates.

As we wrapped up our tour of the Bates home, we were officially converted to lifelong fans of his work. Shameless, we had him pose for photos with his us, his new fans. We aren’t ones to give up the opportunity to get our own photos with a local and national celebrity! With true pride, he posed us for the picture in front of an art piece of Gainesville’s own Sister Hazel. Shortly after our visit, the House of Blues in Orlando announced that the painting would be on display for the next three years in their concert hall.

A true renaissance man, Bates captured the hearts of many as a star college athlete. Today, his talent off the field continues to capture the hearts of those he has touched with his paintings.

Photos by Sincerely Gone Photography