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In the middle of an ordinary business park, I found extraordinary beauty - an arbor garlanded with the most beautiful roses, a forested glen with sun sparkling through steep waterfalls, and several tin roof houses hanging from cliffs at ocean’s edge or over exotic wetlands. What I saw were James Coleman’s visions of paradise on display in his small studio and gallery in Westlake Village.

James Coleman is a fifty year old, self-taught local painter whose art has gained international acclaim. He describes himself as an “impressionistic, romantic, landscape painter.”

Born in Hollywood and raised in the San Fernando Valley, his father was a schoolteacher, his mother a long time employee with Disney Studios. After high school, he seemed directionless and his mother got him a summer job in the mailroom at Disney.

He painted as a hobby and entered one of his pieces in an art show that Disney had for its employees.

“Disney,” Coleman explained, “was an artistic place. When Walt was alive the studio was run by artists, not by the heavy-duty businessmen who run the company today. There were so many artists there then that everything focused around creative people.”

The Disney artists saw his artwork and offered him a job painting backgrounds for Disney animation.

With this job he began his apprenticeship as a painter, learning his trade under the tutelage of many great Disney artists. He painted eight hours a day, day after day. After many of the older artists retired, his talent came to the attention of many of Disney’s directors. Eventually, Coleman became head of Disney’s Animation Background Department. He painted the scenic backgrounds for films such as Winnie the Pooh, The Fox and the Hound, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers, and Beauty and the Beast.

James Coleman polished his talent and craft over 22 years with Disney. While he earned his living from working with Disney, he also painted and occasionally sold his own visions. About a dozen years ago, he says, “it flip-flopped. I earned more from painting my own dreams than painting (Disney) backgrounds.” He set out then on his own as a painter.

Coleman’s is a prolif ic artist. He paints more than 100 unique visions each year. He says he still paints more than eight hours a day. His work hangs in the homes of celebrities like George Foreman and Jay Leno, and is sold in galleries in Hawaii, Aspen, in Westlake Village, and around the world.

“A lot of the magic in my paintings now comes from 22 years of having painted fantasy everyday,” he says. “In nature there are so many fantastic visions that we never really truly see. What we see seems ordinary.”

Most of James Coleman’s paintings are of the natural beauty he has found in his frequent travels to tropical Kauai melded imaginatively with the less exotic but still beautiful gardens and hillsides of his own Westlake Village neighborhood. Coleman’s talent is his ability to transform the ordinary into paradise.