James Sawyer was born on Haida Gwaii in 1969. He is part of the Skidegate Giidins Clan. His lineage includes his uncle, Doug Wilson, argillite carver and author, and his grandfather, Ike Hans, argillite and wood carver. He is also influenced by fellow Haida artist and friend, Reg Davidson. James grew up in Richmond, British Columbia, and then moved home to Haida Gwaii in 1992. At that point, James started to develop his art skills by learning from the late Pat Wesley.
James started to practice art full time in 1997. Initially his focus was with paddles and graphics, then he began working on the designs for button blankets, vests, and logos. Later he started to work in wood and particularly with the steaming, folding and designing of bentwood boxes with relief carving. Today he primarily works in gold, silver and copper engraved jewellery.