Jonathan Green, self-portrait
Back during his days as an art student in Chicago, South Carolina native son Jonathan Green says he got some sage advice from the legendary painter Jacob Lawrence.
“Your job is to tell the story,” Green recalls Lawrence telling him one day when the two men met.
Green, who grew up on a small farm in Beaufort County, just south of Charleston, apparently listened. In the decades since that meeting, he has forged his own artistic legacy by painting the stories of ordinary African Americans who breathed life into the rich culture and economy of his beloved Low Country.
On Saturday, March 30, at the Harvey B. Gantt Center, Green will open an exhibition called “A Spiritual Journey of Life,” a collection of paintings that will take visitors from his early days at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he focused on abstract figures, to the more familiar images of Gullah-Geechee life for which he is now best renowned. (Green’s exhibition will open alongside another Low Country exhibition by photographer David Herman Jr.)
Although Green played a minimal role in naming the exhibition, he said the title is apropos.
“It’s a journey in getting to know oneself, first,” he told Qcitymetro in a recent interview.
“As I look back on my life now,” he said, “I’m really fortunate to have been born in the Low Country to a very rich and deep culture of tradition, art and craft.
‘I’m really fortunate to
have been born in the
Low Country to a very
rich and deep culture
of tradition, art and
craft.’ …Jonathan Green
“That’s the beginning of the spiritual journey, in realizing that you yourself come from something very important, a very proud people.”
When talking about his work and his love for the Low Country, Green speaks at length about the region’s “rice culture,” which came to the United States aboard slave ships along with captured West Africans – skilled laborers who had grown rice for millennia and who, as captives in America, laid a foundation for South Carolina’s agrarian economy.
“My journey is to help and expose people to an unbelievable history and legacy which built the Southeast, which most African Americans don’t know about,” Green said. “Most African Americans don’t know that this is their Ellis Island. Charleston, this whole area, that’s where most of us came through.
“I think the understanding of that is not only my spiritual journey,” he added, “but it should be the spiritual journey of every African American in this country.”
Green said he got his start as a painter at age 5 or 6, when his parents began buying him simple sketches that allowed him to paint by numbers. The drawings mainly depicted agricultural scenes. And being limited in his exposure, he recalled, he painted the horses as mules and the people to match the various hues he saw on the faces of African American friends and neighbors.
“I think I took to (art) like a duck to water,” he said. “Coming from the South, you live amongst it every day of your life. You live with the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of the sky scape, the ocean…”
Although he could relate to no professional artists, Green said several people in his life – including his mother – had a basic appreciation of art, and others, he said, were “mimicking imagery of everyday life.”
Green’s love for art eventually lead him to cities such as Chicago, New York and Naples, Fla. Four years ago, he returned to South Carolina, where he now has a studio on Daniel Island.
As a man steeped in the Gullah-Geechee traditions, Green said living outside his region was enlightening.
“What you realize is that you are immediately thrown into a position of teaching,” he said. “You are teaching people of the rich culture and heritage and helping them to overcome their ignorance.”
Bruton’s Lady, by Jonathan Green (Printed with permission)
The more than 40 works selected for the “Journey” exhibition are quintessential Green – vibrantly colored depictions of a Low Country world that, to a large degree, no longer exists.
There is the “Baptism of Susie Mae,” an oil on Masonite he painted in 1985 depicting a woman being baptized by two men in a river. Another oil on Masonite is called “Cemetery” and depicts two women in their Sunday finery flanked by white tombstones, the kind one might see outside an old, country church.
And true to his dedication to the white grain that occupied the lives of countless salves, one of his paintings, which he did in 2012, is called “Low Country Rice Culture.” It shows a woman thrashing rice beside a giant moss-covered oak, a large straw hat obscuring her face and a colorful apron covering half her body.
One of the exhibition’s more abstract paintings, called “The Bureaucrat,” is actually a depiction of Green’s partner, he said.
Several works in the exhibition offer a religious tone. One such painting he titled “St. John.” Another is called “Praise Him.”
In a 2009 interview with the Naples News, Green said he chose to paint in such brilliant colors because they reflect the 1950s works he grew up admiring. And in African culture, he added, bright colors also are worn to diffuse evil spirits.
The importance of art
In that same 2009 interview, Green also spoke about his struggles to survive as an artist during the Great Recession that started the previous year. At the time of the interview, Green and his partner, Richard Weedman, were facing foreclosure and Green had closed his Naples gallery and was preparing to return to South Carolina.
“These have been some of the most difficult times I have ever experienced in my life,” Green was quoted as saying.
He went on to explain that, with the economy so sour, people simply weren’t buying paintings that cost tens of thousands of dollars. To counter slow sales, he had started producing smaller paintings that he sold for substantially less.
When asked by Qcitymetro what he hoped visitors would take away from the Gantt Center exhibition, Green said he wanted Charlotte residents to understand that “we cannot survive in communities without artists. We need to support our artists.”
He also said he hoped his work would inspire future artists who, like him, may have a story to tell.
“It’s very important for them to document, and document by drawing and painting pictures and telling stories and writing their own folk songs and doing their own plays about their own culture and environment so that they, too, are developing a lasting legacy for the future,” he said. “We need to ensure that every school has an art department.”
IF YOU WANT TO GO
What: Jonathan Green talks about his art
Date: Saturday, March 30
Time: 1 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Place: Harvey B. Gantt Center (551 South Tryon Street)
Cost: Free with museum admission