James grew up in Alabama, one of three children. Creativity runs in the family. His father, a draftsman, painted for a hobby, and his brother paints as well. Dean believes he actually was named after the James Dean of movie fame, although by the time he grew up, his parents had become more conservative, and didn't like to admit it. He was born James Dean Thomas, but when he got into mischief as a youngster, his parents would sternly call him "James Dean" to admonish him. A number of years ago, he legally changed his name to just James Dean. He began drawing in high school but felt compelled to be "practical" in college and graduated from Auburn University in 1982 with an engineering degree. He was hired by Ga Power as an electrical Engineer.
Working as an engineer until he was 37, James kept painting. At 37, a time when most of us are upwardly mobile, James decided that happiness for him would only come from being an artist. So, at age 37, he resigned from Ga Power and became a full time artist. For several years he made his living painting rural landscapes, drawing on the scenery around Athens, Georgia. He began exhibiting. But it wasn't until he happened to paint Pete, his black cat, one day when Pete appeared to be sitting in a contemplative mood with his tail stretched to one side, that James' work took off. People responded to the "catness" in the work, and perhaps the empathy that Dean felt for his pet, which comes through in the paintings.
In 2006 James published his first book, an anthology of his work "Misadventures of Pete the Cat". The book sold 3,000 copies in less than a year. Then, in 2008 James self published a book along with singer/songwriter Erik Litwin. Harper Collins picked the book up in 2009 and since then has climbed as high as #4 on the New York Times Best Seller list for Children's books. Another book is to be debuted in late July, 2011, again published by Harper Collins. The Seen Gallery has been proud to exclusively represent James in the Atlanta area since 2002.