Born in 1930, James McGarrell attended Indiana University in 1953. He spent a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine before completing his M.A. in 1955 at the University of California in Los Angeles. He received a Fulbright Fellowship, which allowed him to study in Stuttgart, Germany for a year at the State Academy of Fine Art.
When he returned to the United States, McGarrell began teaching at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and after three years he returned to Indiana University where he taught and directed the graduate painting program until 1981. McGarrell also taught at the University of St. Louis, serving as head of the painting department until 1993 when he was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus.
In 1978 McGarrell produced four lithographs at the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico: “Stanza: Birches” (with collaborating printer, Stephen Britko), “Stanza: Cascade” (with collaborating printer, Toby Michel), “Stanza: Mountain” (with collaborating printer, Russell Hamilton) and “Stanza:Waves” (with collaborating printer, Toby Michel). In collaboration with master printer Dan Gualdoni, McGarrell produced a lithograph in 1983 titled, “Spring Pull” at Island Press at Washington University in St. Louis.
In 1995 he was awarded the Jimmy Ernst Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has received fellowships and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Foundation. He has been featured in five Whitney Annuals and he participated in the 1968 Venice Biennale. McGarrell is an elected member of the National Academy of Design and the Académie des Beaux- Art de l’Institute de France.