When Jim Wilcox quit his job as a Seattle high school art teacher and opened a gallery in Jackson, he paid the winter’s rent with one of his paintings.

That was 50 years ago, making Wilcox Gallery one of the oldest in town and the oldest to operate under the same owner.

This year the gallery celebrated its half-century milestone with an anniversary show in July that included the first showing of Jim Wilcox’s 3,000th painting, “Opening Day at Lower Falls.”

In a nod to the anniversary that painting measures 50 by 50 inches, and many of the gallery’s artists have been creating 50-by-50-centimeter paintings.

In the late ’60s there were only a handful of galleries in town, and none of them had space to display Wilcox’s work. Opening his own gallery guaranteed his work would be shown and provided him a space to paint.

He and his wife, Narda, found a place they could afford in the Pink Garter complex and opened shop.

In the decades since, Jackson has developed more of a year-round economy and allowed Wilcox Gallery to expand substantially.

It has a location on Town Square and its longtime home north of town on Highway 89, and it has become a hub for Western art.

“The biggest change,” Jim Wilcox said, “is that it’s gotten from being a cow town with a couple art galleries to being the premier place to buy Western art in the country.”

He credited the fact that he’s been able to keep the gallery running for so long to the artists and collectors who work with him.

It also helps to have a family that’s equally passionate about art.

Five of his seven children have worked for the gallery at some point in their lives. His eldest son, Jeff Wilcox, manages of the Highway 89 location and his youngest son, Eric, manages the Town Square location.

Inspired by the artists around him his whole life, Eric Wilcox also became an artist himself, making small bronze wildlife sculptures.

“Growing up upstairs from the art gallery, I was always inspired by the beautiful art and just being immersed in it,” he said. “When I was younger it was, like it or not, you’re immersed in it. Now, as an adult working in the gallery, I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”

For Jeff Wilcox, who was born in 1967, the gallery has always been a part of his life.

For a while the Wilcox home doubled as a showroom. When Jeff Wilcox was a kid that drove him crazy because it meant he wasn’t allowed to throw balls in the house.

It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he started noticing art and walking into galleries of his own volition.

He’s been working full time at the gallery since 1997.

“The art world is always changing and always evolving, and we’re always trying to figure it out,” he said. “But it’s just recently really hitting me as to what a milestone 50 years is.”

The gallery’s longevity speaks to the close working relationships that members of the family cultivate with their artists, who they typically carry for decades, Jeff Wilcox said.

“The better we know them, the better they know us, the better we sell our art,” he said.

One such longtime artist is sculptor Tim Whitworth, who has been with Wilcox Gallery for 39 years.

He came across the gallery in 1980 when he was still working full time as an electrician and making art in his free time. Whitworth had a modest dream: to earn enough as an artist to make a living.

“My goal was to produce one bronze a year,” he said. “I was still working as an electrician. It seemed like for us the purpose of my art was not to get rich and famous but to provide for my family.”

When he and his wife took a tour of Jackson to scope out the galleries and try to figure out how to get his work in one, they were met mostly with indifference.

That is, until they came across the Wilcoxes and their gallery. The family saw Whitworth’s work had promise and have worked with him ever since.

“When you’re with the Wilcox gallery, you’re a part of the family,” Whitworth said.

The Wilcox partnership has been mutually beneficial for both artist and gallery, which speaks to Jeff Wilcox’s point that the family strives to cultivate strong, long-term partnerships with the artists it represents.

Whitworth and Jim Wilcox, along with artists Charles Dayton, Julie Jepsen, Tiffany Stevenson, Dwayne Breck, Judith Dickinson, Allie Zeyer and Tom Mansanerez, will be at the Town Square gallery for demonstrations and an evening reception following the Sept. 14 QuickDraw Art Sale and Auction.

Jepsen, Mansanerez, Wilcox and Dayton will also represent the gallery at the QuickDraw, which starts at 9 a.m. 

Contact Leonor Grave at fallarts@jhnewsandguide.com.

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