James spent her childhood in the exiting milieu of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which her father owned and managed, and spent much of her time with characters like sharpshooter Annie Oakley. In 1922, she married photographer Paul Strand and entered Alfred Stieglitz avant-garde circle of artists and writers, of which Strand was a member. Inspired and influenced by their accomplishments, she decided to become a serious artist, spending most of the 1920s teaching herself how to draw and paint. After befriending Georgia O'Keeffe, James and O'Keeffe took a summer trip to Taos, New Mexico to visit Mabel Dodge Luann's compound. Shortly after in 1933, James moved to Taos.
In New Mexico james found personal happiness and fulfillment as an artist. Her life was dramatic and colorful. She successfully exhibited her unusual folk-art-inspired reverse oil paintings on glass and colcha embroideries throughout the United States. In these works of art, James fused European and American theories, traditions and subjects into what one critic called a "union of the strange and familiar." James' accomplishments are best considered within the wider context of early twentieth-century American modernist art.