Former Florida standout James Bates finds his artistic side

Twenty years after James Bates' time as a standout linebacker for the Florida Gators in the mid 1990s, he found his body aching like it did in those youthful days in the Swamp. No longer chasing down running backs and quarterbacks, Bates was feeling pain from a less bone-rattling endeavor.

Weeks of painting Florida football's iconic Mr. Two Bits inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on a 4 feet by 6 feet slab of wood "beat me up a bit," Bates said, as his body bent in so many different directions to deal with the size of the piece and the "weird angles" he had to paint in.

“I felt like I needed to go see the chiropractor when I was done with it," said Bates, who still resides in Gainesville.

Done with lighting up the Swamp, Bates is brightening up homes with abstract depictions of the very cathedral he once performed in. His full-time hobby away from his Fox Sports broadcasting responsibilities during football season is painting inside his backyard barn/studio. From oils to acrylics, Bates has spent the better part of the last eight years working on abstracts, landscapes, structure pieces and folk art that range in theme from the humorous to the eerie.

His main subjects include sports figures, mostly from football. Many of his folk-inspired sports pieces show subjects with accompanying block letters to tell a story, provide a short bio of the subject or add a famous quote from that person.

“The stories of the game of football and sports are what have always been so cool to me, more so than the X’s and O’s," Bates said. "The human interest stories are always so much fun for me.”

Legendary Florida head coach Steve Spurrier has been a recurring subject for Bates. From hilarious anecdotes and "Spurrierisms" from his days at Florida to a shirtless, visor-wearing South Carolina Spurrier, Bates tries to cover all aspects of the Head Ball Coach.

A painting of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney with the phrase "Dat Boy Can Coach" sits in the CNN offices in Atlanta. That Mr. Two Bits piece, which took more than three weeks of around-the-clock work, hangs in the University of Florida president's house. Bates was commissioned to paint a Jim Harbaugh in footy pajamas. Bates has a neck-braced Bobby Petrino and a darker, folky Tim Tebow on black velvet. Recently, 16 of his pieces sold at his first art show in Gainesville.

“I get so much out of it," Bates said of his painting. "The fact that I can create something that a lot of people are starting to hang on their walls and they feel like this piece that I’ve worked on can make their room brighter or their home better, it’s a really cool feeling.”

Bates said he's always had an affinity for art and drawing, but never took any classes. An admirer of Purvis Young, Howard Finster and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bates doodled in class and on the whiteboard inside Florida's locker room. There, he'd make light of when teammates got in trouble by illustrating those incidents on the board.

It was there that Steve Spurrier's wife, Jerri, found Bates' creative side. While teaching aerobics to the swim team, Jerri Spurrier asked Bates if he would design a T-shirt for the swim team. He obliged, which jump-started his artistic side.

After graduating, Bates learned how to paint on canvas from his one-time college roommate, Eric Kresser, who was an art major. He produced an image of the Smoky Mountains where he and his wife got married, which strengthened his new connection with art.

"That really is my favorite piece," Bates said.

Bates began with more abstracts and landscapes, but has been consistently selling his art since 2008. It's been tough for him to part with some of his "babies," like his original landscapes and Steve Spurriers, but he compensates by working on three or four pieces at a time.

He also copes by asking those who buy from him to take pictures of the paintings in their homes so he can feel close to them again.

“It helps to ease the separation, I guess," Bates said. “We spent so much time together and they looked so good in my house.”

And if the pieces start piling up in his house again with no buyers around, Bates won't worry. He's thrilled that people enjoy his work now, but he just loves having fun with his colorful hobby.

“If people all of a sudden decided that they hated my stuff and nobody bought it anymore, I would still paint; I’d feel like I have to paint," he said. "I feel like for the rest of my life, I’ll always be creating art.”