Artist Jimmy Mathewuse

From book covers to portraits
Jimmy Mathewuse’s Book Covers Have Drawn in Readers for 30 Years

By Sidney L. Matthew 


Artists are a tribe apart. They look like us, but they are different in important ways. They see things we don’t bother to see. They’re impressed by things too mundane for us. They are able to open a window into the soul of people in whom we are too preoccupied to interest ourselves. The gifts of artists are never more apparent than when one looks into the eyes of a painted portrait and says in awe, “He’s looking at me.”

That is the impression created by the works of Tallahassee portrait artist James Louis Mathewuse. His gifts and the ways he has expressed them tell a remarkable tale. His story is little known, but his extraordinary works of art are incapable of anonymity.

Although he has lived in Tallahassee for the past five years, few people know Mathewuse, who prefers to be called “Jimmy.” But if you asked the past top art directors of publishing houses such as Dell, Ace, Bantam, Warner Pocket Books, Zebra, Archway, or Jove Books in New York City, they would happily discuss Mathewuse’s national reputation as one of America’s leading illustrators for book covers.

If you recall the covers of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery novels, chances are good that Mathewuse created them. Since he started painting book covers in 1976, Mathewuse has been commissioned to paint more than 400 by top publishing companies. His paintings have graced the covers of all genres, from Westerns (“The John Wayne Story”) to thrillers (“Time After Time”) to romance (“Songbird”) to adventure (“Warlord of Cathay”) to mainstream novels (Taylor Caldwell’s “The Strong City”).

As one of the New York publishing houses’ favorite illustrators, Mathewuse also became the sole artist to create more than 250 covers for the “Sweet Valley High” and “Sweet Valley Twins” young-adult romance series. Another young-adult book, “Tiger Eyes” by Judy Blume, won the prestigious honors for “Best Young Adult Book of the Year.”  The young-adult series Mathewuse painted have been recognized as the top sellers both in the United States and around the world.

{mosimage}Born in Tampa, Mathewuse said he recognized his interest in art at a tender age. When he saw his first grade teacher draw a bunny rabbit extemporaneously on the blackboard, he knew then that he wanted to create the same type of magic on the easel. Mathewuse fooled around from about age 12 drawing animal portraits.

“I’d actually try to sell those for a few dollars,” he laughed. “I did them mostly because it was fun and people seemed to enjoy them.”

By age 19, he had turned to the more serious endeavor of painting portraits of people.

“It just seemed to come naturally to me,” Mathewuse said. “It became a challenge to capture a person’s spirit on the canvas. So I went to Miami, where I thought there was some action.”

Mathewuse set up a studio between the Carillon and Deauville hotels, across the street from the famous Wolfie’s restaurant.

“They had a lot of famous celebrities going in and out of those places,” he said. He was making pretty good money knocking out charcoal portraits in a couple of hours and getting paid in cash.

While he was there, Mathewuse met another artist, Armando, who specialized in pastel portraits, and persuaded him to teach him how to work with pastels.

“He was a master of the pastel medium,” Mathewuse said of his early mentor. “I learned some very useful techniques from him, but it wasn’t long before I realized I had to grow and improve.”

Returning to Tampa, Mathewuse’s reputation for fine work landed him several extraordinary commissions. In early 1962, Mathewuse was asked by the Democratic Committee of Florida to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy.

“I was honored they asked me to do that,” Mathewuse recalled. “President Kennedy was popular, and there were many, many artists who would have loved to have my job. I worked especially hard on that portrait.”

“And they asked me to fly to Miami to present the portrait to the president while he was at the Deauville Hotel giving a speech. I rode on the plane from Tampa and sat beside the wrestler George Zaharias, who was married to the famous golfer Babe Zaharias. George was going to Miami to present one of the Babe’s golf clubs to President Kennedy.”

Unfortunately, Kennedy had to go on stage before Mathewuse could meet him.

“Even so, he had a tremendous poise and presence about him, which I tried to capture in the portrait,” Mathewuse said. “It was one of the highlights of my career as an artist.”

Another peak in Mathewuse’s storied career happened several years later when he was commissioned by the Association for the Help of Retarded Persons to paint the portrait of President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy. The organization wanted to express its appreciation to Kennedy for his special efforts to promote the charity. Kennedy’s sister was mentally challenged.

“I flew to New York City and presented Bobby Kennedy’s portrait to him at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel,” Mathewuse said. “Johnny Carson was the master of ceremonies for the program. It was quite a production. I remember Bobby shook my hand three different times that night and thanked me over and over for his portrait. I think he liked it a lot.” The photograph of Kennedy receiving the portrait from Mathewuse was published in the newspapers the following day.

During the 1960s, Mathewuse’s services for celebrity portraits was in high demand. “I recall doing a portrait of Roy Rogers and got him to sign it at the Florida State Fair in Tampa,” Mathewuse said. “I also did a pastel of Liberace about 1963 when he was in St. Petersburg doing a show at Guy Lombardo’s Portocal.”

Over the years, Mathewuse also painted pop singer Dion (“Run Around Sue”), singer Vaughn Monroe (“Let it Snow”), New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick on “The Tonight Show.”

Mathewuse became successful enough creating portraits that he set up shop in the then-new West Shore Plaza Shopping Mall in Tampa, located near the airport.

“People used to walk by and watch me working at the easel with a subject sitting in front and, before you knew it, they wanted a portrait too. Business was pretty good.”

After a while, though, it was time to move on and do something else.

By 1976, Mathewuse figured he had a sufficient portfolio to go calling on art directors for the top-flight book companies in New York City and see if they could use his talents.

“I got my first big break from Bruce Hall at Dell Publishing,” Mathewuse said. “Once I got going, we really worked hard to put out highest-quality cover illustrations. They took usually a couple weeks to complete, depending on how detailed they had to be. I could paint three or four a month at the peak. It was a busy time in my life, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Creating a book cover is a unique artistic process. An artist doesn’t just sit in front of the canvas and let his imagination take over the movements of the brush. At least, that wasn’t the method employed by Norman Rockwell, considered the role model for many who came after him.

“Nobody can do them out of their head,” Mathewuse said. “Believe me, the Norman Rockwell method is based on a carefully composed photograph. Ever see Rockwell’s self-portrait or a picture of him working? He was always working from a photograph. And the results were remarkable. That’s why he was my main idol as an artist.”

The first step in creating a cover is to understand the theme of the book.

“The art director usually sends me the entire manuscript to read with a rubber band around the loose pages,” he said. “Or he sends me a synopsis of the book. I read it and sometimes get my friends or daughter to read it so I can get the story down. The art director makes sure the artist gets the theme. You are selected carefully by the art director for your particular talent as an artist. It isn’t a coincidence.

“After settling on the theme, I sketch out a preliminary plan,” Mathewuse continued. “It is just a thumbnail of how to tell the story. The art director then approves the thumbnail sketch. Then I hire models to play the role of the characters in the book. Of course, we sometimes have to rent costumes if the setting of the book is not in modern times. A professional photographer then takes pictures of the models. From these photographs, I draw another rough sketch to connect or perfect the theme of the book. The art director then approves or changes that sketch. Sometimes the art director actually comes to the photo shoot.

“Norman Rockwell did this too. He made preliminary sketches before starting into the final work. That is one reason his paintings appear to be so well composed,” Mathewuse explained.

To illustrate this process, Mathewuse described the creative process for a cover he was asked to do of the famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who spent much of his later life tracking down Nazis who escaped justice in Germany.

“I started with a large sketch of Wiesenthal in the middle of the canvas,” he said. “Then, over one of his shoulders in the background was a Star of David in a light pastel. Over another shoulder was placed a line of Jews standing in line in a concentration camp. On the other side of a barbed wire fence were German stormtroopers carrying machine guns and holding German shepherd dogs on leashes. I think you get the story from all this in an instant.

“Sometimes the story line requires a literal illustration,” Mathewuse said. “Other times I try to be symbolic. But in a young-teenage romance novel, a symbolic cover is probably over the teenagers’ heads – if you know what I mean,” he said with a smile.

“I take a lot of care with the colors used for covers as well. A murder mystery often calls for red and black. A romance title works best with pastel, lavender and pink. A Western needs browns and blacks and earth tones.

“A final consideration in composing the cover is to position the image to allow space for the title, author and copy to be overlaid,” he said. “We don’t want to cover the area reserved for the bar code price, for instance. In the end, the reader looks at the overall expressions – whether it is shock or despair, anger, lust, exhilaration, sadness or what have you – and they somehow identify with it and want to buy the book to see just how it all turns out.”

By 1979, Mathewuse was at the height of his career, producing pastel covers for the most prestigious books in the publishing trade. He also had operated a successful studio at the Galleria Mall in Houston. However, his life was about to change yet again.

At around that time, Mathewuse came across an oil painting by artist Peter Caras of New Jersey. Caras studied under American legend Rockwell beginning when Caras was only 18 years old. As Rockwell’s protégé, Caras developed a highly refined technique – one that immediately struck Mathewuse.

“I went straight to Dell’s art director, Bruce Hall, and asked if he would arrange for me to meet Caras,” Mathewuse said. After a brief introduction, Mathewuse committed to study under Caras in 1980, moving to a house just one block from Caras’ own. He sat in Caras’ studio for four years, absorbing all he could.

“I told Jimmy I would train him but insisted on a few restrictions,” Caras said from his studio in Leonardo, N.J. “I could see that Jimmy was what I call a ‘natural’ – a ‘diamond in the rough.’ I wish I had gotten him at age 15. He had so much raw talent.”

But while Mathewuse excelled in pastel, he had little experience in oil painting. So Caras taught him the medium of oils. Today, Caras teaches at DuCret School of Art in New Jersey, where he has instructed scores of students.

“I consider Mathewuse as one of my best students and a good friend too,” Caras said. “We have collaborated on a lot of projects together, and I’ve invited Jimmy to show his works later this year at a show being put together up here in New Jersey called ‘Caras & Colleagues.’”

Armed with the oil painting techniques he learned from Caras, Mathewuse turned his sights on another passion – Western and Indian art. In the 1980s, Mathewuse became friendly with a handful of Seminole Indians at lodges in Tampa and South Florida. He was permitted to photograph and paint a number of Seminoles, including Stanford Jumper and alligator wrestler Tommy Gore, known as “Skinny Boy.” He also asked permission to paint a young Seminole princess named Madeline.

“I asked her mother if it was alright for her to sit for me,” Mathewuse said. “We spent a long time talking about the details, and the mother even provided Madeline with her grandmother’s vivid red handmade dress, which was out-of-this-world beautiful.”

Recently, Mathewuse painted “Ole Tallahassee,” an image recreated from the oldest known photograph of a Seminole Indian in the National Archives. He currently is working on images of the Florida State University symbol Osceola and his horse, Renegade.

Mathewuse also has traveled to South Dakota, where he studied and painted Indian tribes.

“The ruggedness and distinctiveness of the Native Americans appeals to me and is a stark contrast to the softness of the young-adult books,” he said.

It is little wonder that Mathewuse is attracted to Western and Indian subjects. Standing over 6-feet, 2-inches tall and ruggedly handsome, he could easily be cast as  a character in “Lonesome Dove.” In fact, Mathewuse once painted himself as a cowboy for a book cover of one Western title. The art director even called him to ask, “Is that really you?”

“Yeah, it is. I thought that was the easiest way to get a willing model to pose for me,” Mathewuse laughed. “Sometimes you have to be resourceful.”

Before the height of his career, Mathewuse married and had two children. He and his wife later divorced; another relationship would produce two more children.

Later, he bought a two-story house in Tarpon Springs, located across the street from the Gulf of Mexico. After working all week, Mathewuse would relax while deep-sea fishing on his 36-foot boat. He decided five years ago to move up to Tallahassee and spend time with his daughter, Christina, and his grandchildren. Christina owns the Tucker Mills Insurance Agency while her husband, Alan, works as an electrician for Hartsfield Electric at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare.

Mathewuse has painted a number of portraits for Tallahassee residents.

“I still enjoy meeting people and trying to capture them on canvas,” he said.

He still loves to fish in his now smaller boat and enjoys hunting with his grandson, Robbie. Mathewuse also has discovered that North Florida has some unique natural scenery, which he has painted. And, at his birthday party last month at a local Mexican restaurant, Mathewuse was serenaded by a senorita playing a violin. The next week, Jimmy returned to present her with a charcoal portrait of her to give her parents.

“I thought she might like that,” Mathewuse beamed.

Sidney Matthew is a local attorney and author who, after being given a portrait by Mathewuse of his three children, “set out to find out more about this extraordinary talent who happens to live in Tallahassee.”

“Ole Tallahassee,” by James L. Mathewuse, is done with pastels from an original photograph obtained through the National Archives. The portrait, shown on the cover of Tallahassee Magazine, is available in a special limited signed and numbered collection of Giclee prints in two sizes: 16 by 22 inches ($129.95) and 22 by 28 inches ($179.95), plus shipping, handling and framing.

Mathewuse also is available by appointment for limited private commissions. Visit his Web site at 

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