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  • Tara Crutchfield

A Conversation With Lone Star

James ‘Lone Star’ Camp may not have gotten to play a cowboy in old Westerns, but he has darn sure lived like one. Lone on the range, the Bartow native traveled across the country from Tupelo to Devil’s Lake, painting murals along the way. For 83 years old, Lone Star is still plenty sharp between the ears. And boy, does he have stories to tell.

Photograph by Amy Sexson

Most would know the old cowboy for the orange tricycle he rides around Bartow (he calls it Trigger), which has an American flag on the back and a Texas flag with a feather on the handlebars. He’s usually toting one of his paintings or on his way to paint a bare wall. Lone Star is a local legend, lending his talents to the community one piece of art at a time.

Dressed in cowboy boots with a red bandana around his neck, sipping a cup of coffee, Lone Star began, “I wanted to be an actor, but I was scared of California. You ever been to LA? I took LA to be a bad place, and that’s where all the actors were making it at.”

Lone Star wanted to be in the Westerns. His favorite era was the 40s and 50s. “All of them were good,” he said.

As for his nickname, Lone Star gave it to himself.

“I stayed away from stupidity and just kept to myself. When I was in Texas, I looked at that flag – the Lone Star State.” That led to a history lesson on the Alamo, which Lone Star ended with, “I ain’t going to die for no building! I’d die for God.”

Lone Star started painting as a teenager. “It’s something I liked,” he said. “I started doing big top circus tents, clowns. I’d draw an ice cream cone turned upside down, put the mouth, big nose, tassel. That’s how I started drawing clowns. [...] And I got interested in the cowboys. In fact, I used to wear a cap gun. You don’t see the young kids wearing cap guns now.”

Faith was a topic that flowed throughout our conversation. Lone Star shared a story about a man who stole his sister’s car. “My sister died worrying about that car. I had two guns strapped on and loaded. I go out West every summer, and I was brought up in church, and I do fear God. I’ve done wrong. I repent. I pray, ma’am. I try to love and help everybody. I give my pictures away. […] I started to bust this guy in the head. He was drunk. I heard the Lord [say], ‘God is God.’ And he reflected me lying there. I seen me lying there and I couldn’t do it. God said, ‘Vengeance is mine. No man has the right to take a life.’”

Lone Star said he was grown when he started painting murals. “I wasn’t as good then as I am now.” One secret he divulged was using tape. He remembers painting in Lakeland when a school bus passed, and a student yelled, ‘Haha, look at that guy, he’s using tape!’ “I got kind of mad. I said, ‘That’s what they learn in school, to be ignorant?”

He put his fingers on the table to demonstrate how tape helps him work, keeps his lines sharp. “I do a neat job. When I pull the tape, everything is straight and neat.”

He estimates he could have upwards of 100 murals across the country, though some have been painted over. “I do cowboys on some of these buildings. I did Lash LaRue putting bullets in his gun looking at you. I painted Gabby Hayes, Lloyd Green, Little Jo, the old boys. […] They had Polaroid cameras back then. I never took no pictures, but I should have.”

The Bartow cowboy wants a Polaroid now. When he was growing up, he liked taking pictures of all the houses on Palmetto. “All them houses, they’re torn down now. The old laundry mat.” He showed me a photo of a row of houses where his sister lived. Then he scrolled to the next picture of a man, Damon Lawrence.

“I was in Kansas City, broke. I got mad at this carnival and left. I was doing painting. […] I left Coffeyville, Kansas, walking – didn’t know what I’d get into. I made it to Kansas City, Missouri. It didn’t matter where I slept. I was going to sleep somewhere. […] I told the operator, give me Damon Lawrence, Bartow, Florida. I didn’t know his phone number and address.” They gave him the number, Lone Star called, and according to Lone Star, Mr. Lawrence wired him some money. Asked if he was able to get back to Bartow with the funds, Camp laughed and said, “I kept the money and hitchhiked.”

“Let me tell you about Tupelo,” he said next. “I got a broke down alternator in Tupelo, Elvis Presley’s hometown. I could still drive now, but my alternator was gone. I didn’t have no lights.” He stopped by a little garage on the side of the road. “It’s dangerous now. People will kill you sleeping in cars. I woke up the next morning, and I went in [to the garage] and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr., I’m trying to make it to Florida. I need an alternator. I’ll give you every penny I got in my pocket. Please, Mr., help me.’ He didn’t say a word. He got up slowly, looked at my car.” The man told him to get in the car and put it in neutral. He did. And the man pushed it right in front of the garage. “I thank God, buddy, he had the right alternator. Was the whole setup an angel, or did God put it there? […] He went in there, put on the right alternator, and gave me twenty dollars.”

If you’re interested in more of Lone Star’s stories and to view his artwork, you’re in luck. The Bartow Art Guild will host a solo exhibition from June 1 - 29 titled “Our Folk: The Folk Art of James “Lone Star” Camp.” There will be an artist reception on June 10 at 6 pm sponsored by the Bartow Juneteenth Committee.

Marcia Mullins, Board President for the Bartow Art Guild, noted, “It’s one of those things that has snowballed already. The whole community, everyone is talking about it.” Of the exhibition, Mullins said, “One of the things we’re trying to do here at Bartow Art Guild is help local artists better value their own work.”

The City of Bartow will issue a proclamation declaring June 10, James ‘Lone Star’ Camp Day. “That means I’ve got to be an angel too. Walk straight, don’t get in no trouble, take a lot of stupidity, and let God fight it, just like I do,” Lone Star said.

Photograph by Amy Sexson

Bartow Art Guild

1242 E Main St, Bartow

(863) 329-9893

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“Our Folk: The Folk Art of James “Lone Star” Camp”

Where: Bartow Art Guild

When: June 1 - 29, 2024

Reception: June 10, 6 pm


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