James Drake grew up in Texas, where he witnessed firsthand the political and economic realities of the border between Mexico and Texas. Imagery and issues relating to this turbulent theme recur throughout Drake's work. After earning a BFA and MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, he returned to Texas.
Drake was featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. He also received three fellowships from the NEA and the 1989 SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Arts) Art Award given by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.