The Artist from Gardens Corners
Author: Paul deVere
On May 6, artist Jonathan Green will be in Columbia to receive the 2010 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Awards for the Arts Lifetime Achievement. It’s the highest honor the state gives in the arts. With his vibrant depictions of Gullah life, Gullah people and Gullah ways, his impact on the world of art has been more than just significant. Museums and collectors of his work span the globe.
But for the kid who grew up in Gardens Corner, South Carolina, another award may be more treasured. Green related the story. “In school, when they noticed my talents, the teachers and then the students asked me to do drawings and help them out with their projects, so I was drawing all of my life. I don’t remember being without drawing,” he said.
“Back in those days (early 1960s), we used to have Friday programs in the auditorium at Dale Elementary School. I did most of the bulletin boards in the classes I was in. And my work was entered into the county art fair. I won first prize. That gave me a big boost.”
The young artist went on to Robert Smalls Middle School where he experienced his first formal arts setting. He continued to be active in the arts at Beaufort High School, spending his summers on Parris Island. “I worked in the ceramics department there. So I got an opportunity to paint a lot and work with glazes. There was a variety of wonderful people from around the country and around the world there, wives of Marines stationed on Parris Island. I had an opportunity to dialogue with people from different places and got a lot of feedback about my work,” Green said.
From high school, Green entered the U.S. Air Force and worked his way into an illustration department. Following the military, he attended vocational school in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, where he concentrated in textile design. But his teacher there really wanted Green to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And it was in the Windy City that Green and his brush blossomed, as did his idea about the subject matter that would be a lifelong focus.
At the time, the Art Institute was a combination museum and school. The museum, one of the most respected in the world, is known for its collection of 19th-century French Impressionists (Claude Monet) and 20th Century European and American art (Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks).
The school has had the same kind of recognition and reputation since its founding in the late 1800s. Some artists who were young students there include Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Ivan Albright, Ed Paschke, Halston, LeRoy Neiman, and David Sedaris. It was this world the young man from Gardens Corner entered. It was at the Institute that he discovered a hole in the soul of American art.
“As a young African American student at the Art Institute, in the museum, there was only one image by an African American, that was a Jacob Lawrence,” Green said. Lawrence developed his talents in the 1930s in the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. His best-known works are his series on historical and social themes, such as Life in Harlem and War (a homage to WWII soldiers).
“I was always perplexed by that. In looking at the continent of Africa and looking at 20th century art which came from Africa, I just couldn’t understand why the facial image of the African American person was problematic for most people. You didn’t see the images in homes, with the exception of the Afri-Cobra movement. Many African American artists from the 18th and 19th centuries were not allowed to paint—to depict their own imagery. They could only do landscapes and floral painting,” Green said. He discovered that all changed with the WPA.
“Once you’ve been in a traditional art school and you’ve studied all the masters, you get lots of good information about the art world—the ways they painted, what they painted. I found, consistently, what was lacking in terms of my visual exposure was the imagery of African American people. And I thought I had a great opportunity to depict some of that imagery. After school, I found and started studying the WPA artists and the history of the WPA movement. I became very active in research about the WPA and started collecting painters and sculptors from that period,” Green explained.
He felt he had another perspective, another vision. In many of Green’s paintings, the point of view is often from the back of the subject, not portraiture, not face on, but from behind. “In terms of my early attempt to become a painter, I wanted to paint from of the earliest perspective of a child, the child being myself. Most children remember the rear of people in the country, that’s how we’re taught. We’re taught to follow adults in the rear. That way you’re protected; they know where you are. And you’re much more observant from the rear,” Green explained. In so much of his work the viewer is, indeed, looking at world of the Gullah through the eyes of a child. There is an innocence, a childlike optimism, a sense of hope—and in many, an outrageous sense of color. Those vivid hues, Green said, are “factual.”
“If we look at the fashion world, especially from the ’40s and ’50s, that was a time when many primary colors were used. Clothing that I saw as a child was clothing that was reflective of the ’40s, because many of the people had hand down clothing. Cords, heavy silks, heavy cotton, those types of fabric, were very strong in color. Fabric sold in shops (around Gardens Corners) were older fabrics. People from my community still maintaining their ‘African-ness’ were attracted to those colors and those patterns. Their attraction, aside from its vividness, was also a way of confusing the spirits, the evil gods. They felt the more vivid and elaborate they dressed, in patterns and colors and layers, the better chance they had to ward off evil spirits,” Green said.
With all his travels, Green said he has three homes: the Lowcountry, Chicago and Naples, Florida where he spent the last 25 years at his gallery there, painting the vision of his first home and his people. He has moved back to the Lowcountry and has opened a studio on Daniel Island, just north of Charleston (appointment only). But this month, he will return to one of his other homes, Chicago, for a short time. On February 27, Off the Wall and Onto the Stage, Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green will be performed at the Harris Theatre. It is a ballet that brings 22 of Green’s paintings to life and, through dance, music and fine art, tells the story of the Gullah culture. There will also be an exhibit at the South Side Community Arts Center—a collection of posters Green has produced for a variety of events.
In 2002, Green was awarded the Order of the Palmetto for the Arts by the State of South Carolina. In 2009, Green received the Key of Life Award from the NAACP for his “contributions and achievements in the visual fine arts.” The list is long and deserved. But that one the little boy from Gardens Corner got from Beaufort County so long ago, well, as he said, that one gave him a “boost.”