Home & Garden: Quiet moments in a Miranova home

Sherry Beck Paprocki
Columbus Monthly
A new kitchen with cabinetry made of bubinga, an African rosewood, was created when the couple purchased a neighboring space to enlarge the size of their home.

In the entry of Larry and Donna James' Miranova home is a sobering work by Chicago artist Gerald Griffin. An elderly black man is seen in the forefront while a tree fades into the background. Further study reveals bodies hanging from the tree.

Larry says something about “strange fruit,” in reference to similar paintings and, most likely, the song about racism originally recorded by Billie Holiday.

“The entrance way is so powerful,” Larry says later.

“I designed it specifically for his love of art,” acknowledges Donna.

The couple has lived in Miranova since 2001, when the building was one of Downtown's first luxury high-rises. When at home, the two spend time contemplating specific pieces of art and their collection's meaning in the texture of their interwoven lives.

Before arriving here, they had already been married for several years, during which time Donna refreshed Larry's bachelor pad in German Village. Donna had started looking for houses—maybe they would move to Bexley or New Albany, she thought. Larry admits it would have killed him to move to the suburbs. Miranova was their compromise.

Back in 2001, Larry explains, he wanted to err conservatively on the family budget; both were helping their older mothers and agreed that a smaller space could be fine. Then, a few years ago, the building's developer, Ron Pizzuti, sold them a neighboring space they had considered purchasing back in 2001. That's when their home nearly doubled in size, in part to accommodate their ever-expanding art collection.

Together, the Jameses have filled their comfortable high-rise home and built inconceivably busy lives in the heart of the city. Donna has frequently appeared in the news since she served as president of Nationwide Strategic Investments, a division of Nationwide Mutual Insurance. In the early days of her career, she'd reared her son alone as a single parent. It was a life that kept her busy. She left Nationwide in 2006 and leapt into developing a nonprofit called the Center for Healthy Families. (She is still chair of this nonprofit, which serves pregnant and parenting teens and their children.)

She is also a business consultant, and her work involves sitting on the boards of well-known public companies—the local L Brands, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Boston Scientific and the private FIS Group. (She's already moved off a few others, including Time Warner Cable, Coca Cola and Intimate Brands.)

This is the same Donna who put extraordinary time and thought into furnishing the recent expansion of their Miranova space. It's here where she conceived a luxurious kitchen with cabinets of unique bubinga, an African rosewood. She told her husband after the fact that she ordered two ovens—he's the cook, but she knew he could use them. And, after it was installed, she revealed the stereo system added to the intercom so he could enjoy his beloved music, some of it from his huge album collection played on a turntable that she also anticipated he needed.

Music was the first art that Larry James appreciated. Growing up in poverty in Alabama, country and blues were staples of his life. He studied hard, moved to Ohio and became an attorney. His life has been a journey. A graduate of Wittenberg University in Springfield, he then got a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1977, arriving in Columbus soon after as an assistant city attorney and working his way up to a partnership at Crabbe, Brown & James.

Since 2001, he has been general counsel to the National Fraternal Order of Police, putting him squarely in the midst of conversations regarding race relations. An attorney in the heat of such intense conversation needs a comfortable home in which to retreat.

It's not unusual for Donna to awake early on weekend mornings to hear her husband lightly tapping the walls with a hammer, re-arranging pieces on a whim. “The game is, ‘When is she going to notice?' ” he says.

“This is who we are,” adds Larry, who hangs every piece of art at home and the offices. “This is us.”

In quiet moments, they enjoy each piece of art. “It's the subtle quietness of reflection,” says Larry. “It's more intimate and special, I think, for us on a personal level. If no one else shared them that would be OK.”

To this couple, the art dominates their design sensibilities.

“I like furniture that speaks to art,” says Donna, who buys the furniture for the home.

“The furniture matches the art,” explains Larry.

“It doesn't overpower it,” she continues. “It's got to speak to it but still be functional.”

In their home is a bronze sculpture called “Camille” by Issac Maimon. Larry admired the work for three years in an art shop at the now defunct City Center Mall. When the shop began to close, Larry bought the piece. The sculpture, in all its feminine elegance, reminds him of his wife.

“She has the elegance that is instinctive, and it's always improving, and it just gets better,” says Larry. “I marvel at the grace. I've learned to just stay out of the way.”

It took awhile, and a lot of hard work, for this couple to amass the comforts found within their home. Today Larry laughs about his early years in Columbus, picking up museum posters that he'd frame and congratulate himself on being an art connoisseur.

Upon arriving in town as a young man, Larry hung out with other music lovers. He began traveling with friends. His volunteer work was revered, as he served on a multitude of boards, committees and commissions—ranging from the Ohio Elections Commission to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

He was moved and perplexed in 1987 when the late Jerry Hammond and former mayor, the late Buck Rinehart, asked him to become president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Performing & Cultural Arts. The two local politicians rarely agreed, but they teamed up to coerce Larry to take the job he felt entirely unequipped to do.

He says the arts community in Columbus had a general feeling about him: “What this guy knows about art you could put into a teaspoon.” But, he surmises, someone finally deemed him “trainable.”

Through the years, his taste in posters was enhanced, he says, a wry sense of humor apparent. He met others in the arts community. He stopped in at art galleries during his travels. He married Donna in 1989. At the time, they both had young sons around the same age.

The two decided they liked the Gullah artist Jonathan Green. More art was purchased. As the couple added to their collection, they would remove pieces from the walls in their homes and give them to siblings and their now-adult sons. “When your space and your pocketbook and your intellect combine, you get it,” explains Larry.

That's when art began to overflow from their home to their office spaces. Employees grew attached to certain pieces. Larry once waited for a receptionist to quit before he felt he could move a special piece of art away from her desk.

Donna gives him credit as her art mentor. But now she's perfectly comfortable, buying pieces by Marc Chagall and Joan Miro during a recent trip to San Francisco. She likes impressionism, he prefers realism. Artists and gallery owners call them when special pieces are available. They negotiate over spaces. And they negotiate when Larry announces that he will probably give away a certain piece. (They even negotiate briefly during this interview.)

Larry contemplates how art has changed him as their collection continues to grow. “I think the idea of reality and being curious attracts you to the things that become you,” he says. “Your competitive edge will not let you stop. It leads you to succeed.”