Discovering one’s passion, the driving force that permeates and defines a life, derives from no single formula. Depending on opportunities, it may happen in early childhood, or during one’s college years. And sometimes, much later, as in the case of Sally James of Ogdensburg, the convergence of life experience with a dose of serendipity spawns an awakening — the revelation of a hidden but prodigious talent.
Sally led a privileged life, having been born in 1869 into one of the North Country’s prominent families. (Her given name was Sarah, but she always went by Sally, once a common nickname for Sarah.) Indicative of the James family lifestyle is that many decades after her uncle’s home was built, it became the luxurious Crescent Hotel, with 18 guestrooms.
Sally’s grandfather, Amaziah James, was an attorney, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and later a member of Congress. Her father, Edward, was a colonel during the Civil War and became one of the best-known attorneys in St. Lawrence County. After Edward married Sarah Welles in 1864, they lived in his father’s opulent home, which was tended to by a staff of four servants. Daughters Lucia and Sarah (Sally) were born there, but in December 1879, when the girls were 13 and 10 respectively, Mrs. James died after a lengthy illness.
In 1881, Edward moved to New York City to further his profession, while his daughters remained in Ogdensburg, obtaining a proper upbringing under the influence of their grandparents and Amaziah’s female cousin, who lived in the household and worked as a music teacher.
From a young age, Sally was a lover of horses, which in several respects would serve her well in the future. She learned to ride, and with a group of other like-minded ladies took advanced lessons from a local instructor on how to handle horses in all situations. Referring to her childhood, she also claimed an interest in culture, even at a very young age. “Art … I’ve always loved it. Why, at the age of four, I was so devoted to a marble bust that my father … had imported from Italy, that I took a chair one day, crawled up to embrace the object of my affections, lost my balance, and the world nearly lost an artist.” At the time, her first love remained horses, which she rode as well as any man. “I was born and bred an athlete. I lived in Ogdensburg, New York, where I was a scandal for breaking in my horses along Main Street.”
While indulging her love for the outdoors, the tomboyish Sally also developed the social graces of a debutante. A sharp wit and the love of a good time earned her many friends among the region’s well-to-do families. An above-average singer, thanks in part to training under her great-aunt Sarah, she performed in events at the opera houses in Ogdensburg and Prescott, a sort of sister city located a mile away in Canada, directly across the St. Lawrence River. At times she participated in a quartet, and soloed as well. Otherwise, life among the affluent included society balls, fundraisers, dinners, and parties.
She also performed charitable works, collecting clothing and other items as holiday gifts for patients in the Ogdensburg City Hospital, and providing Christmas trees to the children at the Orphan Asylum.
Later in life, she spoke of childhood trips to Europe with her father, introducing her to European art and culture. At least two overseas trips, each lasting several months, occurred in the early 1890s, when Sally was in her twenties. One venture, aboard the City of Rome, nearly ended in disaster when the ship struck Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland. Thick fog had required a reduction in speed, limiting the damage, but the ship’s forward compartment was left flooded by the impact. The remainder of their passage, completed at half speed, was without incident.
Through the mid-1890s, she remained involved in Ogdensburg’s social scene, singing at special events, joining excursions in the Thousand Islands (a close friend named his new 28-foot yacht Sally, and she personally handled the christening), arranging and attending charity events, plus, of course, enjoying plenty of horseback riding. She owned four of the finest horses in the region, including a gray mare by the name of Silver Fizz.
Edward, meanwhile, had become one of the state’s most prominent and successful attorneys, winning several record settlements for corporations and wealthy individuals like Russell Sage and the Gould family. During frequent trips to visit him in New York, Sally’s horizons broadened considerably while mixing with the city’s social elite. There she met Paulding Farnham, famed designer for Tiffany & Company, and the two became enamored. He was among a group of New York City and Ogdensburg friends who joined Sally on a two-week hunting and fishing outing in a luxurious camp at Lake Timiskaming on the Quebec-Ontario border, about 300 miles northwest of Ogdensburg.
Two months later, on December 31, 1896, she and Paulding were married at Ogdensburg and began their new life together, settling in with his mother on the family estate in Great Neck, Long Island. There Sally blended easily among the upper class, earning a reputation as an outstanding horsewoman, and attending race events featuring entries by the Vanderbilts and other prominent families.
During their first four years of marriage, son James (1898) and daughter Julia (1900) were born. The following year, Paulding purchased land in British Columbia near mines in which he had invested. There he built a ranch, a move that would impact their lives a decade later. At the time, Sally’s future seemed secure, promising to evolve into an enhanced version of the leisurely past.
But 1901 was a pivotal year, yielding some of her bleakest moments. Her beloved father, Colonel Edward James, fell ill, passing away in late March from pneumonia. Later that year, she faced an extended convalescence period after undergoing surgery. The painfully slow passage of time was especially difficult for an active, gung-ho personality like Sally, but from the darkness came a moment that would redefine her life.
To alleviate her boredom and depression-like state, Paulding, the amazing craftsman of so many Tiffany masterpieces, brought her a package of plasticine, a putty-like modeling clay. She took to it quickly, and objects began emerging from her manipulations, which she described years later in lovely fashion: “It was as if in some mysterious previous state of existence, I had actually been a sculptor, and the memory of it was beginning to leak back into my fingers and thumbs.” At age 32, she underwent an amazing epiphany while creating her first work, describing it as “a tiny nude figure.”
Returning home after recovering, Sally remained intent on pursuing this newfound avocation. It soon developed into a professional enterprise, complete with the opening of a studio in New York City. Unlike the situation faced by most women, working while tending to a pair of young children at home wasn’t an issue — the Farnham staff included a cook, laundress, waitress, and a trained nurse.
Among her early sculpting efforts were portrayals of friends, but by her own account, a model of a Spanish dancer marked the birth of her artistic career, for it received a professional critique from an acquaintance and painter whose own sculpting career had recently flourished—Frederic Remington, a native of Canton, about 16 miles southeast of Ogdensburg. The piece had been damaged just before he viewed it, but Remington saw through the quick repair job and recognized the quality within, commenting that it was “ugly as sin,” but “full of ginger.” The phrasing Sally cited years later in an interview was, “Ugly as the devil, but full of pep. Go home and do some more.” Either way, the message was clear: she had a future as an artist.
Frederic became a friend, urged her to continue sculpting, and was supportive of her work—although, because of her very nature, there was perhaps no stopping her anyway. Work became her passion, and despite competing as an untrained artist in a world dominated by men, she achieved unexpected breakthroughs very quickly.
In 1903, just two years after she first toyed with a lump of plasticine in the hospital, Sally was commissioned by Colonel Isaac Emerson, the wealthy creator of Bromo-Seltzer, to design and build a fountain for his Baltimore garden (for the 2016 equivalent of about $139,000). The layout included several full-sized figures, including Pan, for which Sally’s young son Jim posed.
Next: Ascending the heights.
Photos: Sally James Farnham; the Baltimore fountain (Michael P. Reed’s website)