James Pappas began studying art at Madison High School in Rochester, New York. He won scholarships to the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery and Rochester Institute of Technology for development classes in 1955-56. Upon graduation from Madison he went to St. Augustine’s College in Raliegh, North Carolina, in 1959 on an athletic scholarship, where he studied under visiting Professor Emeritus, and nationally known artist and author James Herring, from Howard University. Pappas continued his undergraduate and graduate work at the State University of New York at Buffalo Albright Art School where he received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in painting in 1974.
After graduation Pappas took a position as a parole worker for the state of New York. He then went on to teach at the University of Buffalo in the departments of Art and Black Studies. He became Chair of the latter in 1977 where he remained for thirteen years as its head. He also became Head Master of Black Mountain College II, a collegiate unit offering visual and performing Arts programs for the general student population at SUNY Buffalo. At the same time he was Co-founder and Director (with his fellow artists Allie Anderson, Clarence Scott and Wilhelmena Godfrey) of the Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in Buffalo’s Inner City.
As part of his many contributions to the arts, Pappas has consulted on a large number of projects and has played an important role in furthering the arts in New York State while being appointed to numerous boards and committees, including the City of Buffalo Arts Commission, New York State Council on the Arts, County of Erie Arts in Public Places Board, the Niagara Frontier Airport Art Selection Committee, Burchfield-Penny Art Center, and the CEPA Gallery.
His art work has been exhibited in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He has also received many awards for his work and community service.
Pappas is currently on the faculty as an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He has had over 50 exhibitions and lectured widely in the field of Applied Media Aesthetics where he specializes in Black Cinema studies. His latest project involves collaborating with saxophonists Rey Scott in a multidisiplinary work.