James Penney was born in St. Joseph Missouri in 1910. He is an artist known for landscapes, botanics, murals, and the modernist genre. He began his formal art education at the University of Kansas where he graduated in 1931. After graduation, he moved to New York City and studied at the Art Students League. During the WPA Federal Art Project, he was hired to complete numerous mural commissions.
Due to his experiences during the Depression, Penney had a knack for recycling discarded objects back into works of art. This instinct became the envy of latter-day ecologists. In 1963, he won a national competition to paint the murals in the vestibule of the Nebraska State Capitol.
He spent much of his career teaching art at Hamilton College where he retired in 1976. He died on August 1, 1982 in Clinton, New York.