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Jonathan Green: "Paint what you know"

The Lowcountry's premiere painter of Gullah & Geechee life gives us a picture of his artistic vision

January 27, 2015

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    The Averitt Center has scored big with its latest artist exhibition. It features the work of Jonathan Green, a painter out of South Carolina’s Low Country who specializes in depicting scenes of Gullah and Geechee culture along the coast. With bold figures and commanding colors, his works arrest the eyes and give the viewer a sense of a vibrant, bustling world going on just beyond the canvas. Green focuses on bringing respect and dignity into his paintings of African-American cultures and carries a sense of service and near-journalistic duty to his art, making him fascinating as an artist and a speaker. We were lucky enough to speak to Mr. Green as he was getting ready for his gallery opening at the Averitt Center Friday, Jan. 9.

    Connect: Tell us about you. What’s your story?

    Green: My story is that I was one of those very, very fortunate people to have been a byproduct of segregation and integration. From that, I lived in a very rich and vibrant, somewhat African culture in a place called Buford County—garden’s corner. And I was born to be an artist. I don’t ever remember not wanting to be an artist, I don’t remember thinking about anything else I wanted to do in life but be an artist. So I spent my entire life looking and mimicking and doing artwork for all the different classes throughout the different grades I was in.

    I worked in Paris Island military bases while I was in high school, a summer program. My first job was working on a golf course, and then my second job was working in a ceramics shop, and there I fell in love and I knew I was hooked for life.

    C: In the ceramics shop?

    G: In the ceramics shop on Paris Island.

    C: That’s really interesting, given that you’re primarily a painter, right?

    G: I am, but after the works have been fired, the colors are magnificent, and it was the firing of the glaze onto the ceramics that just blew my mind… Then, as I went up to New York…I realized, I really do have an opportunity of pursuing a career in art. I didn’t know much about art—I had taken some classes in high school — but being in a city like New York and having to attend the schools and having access to museums and libraries and cultural centers, I thought, “I can do this. I just have to dedicate myself.” And that is a dedication I have lived by, and that has allowed me to go to an art institution — the Art Institution of Chicago, for four years … and I’ve been painting now for almost 40 years.

    …It’s an unbelievable gift, and I do believe it’s a spiritual, divine connection in terms of the artist. We illustrate the culture and the people in the culture, and everything you look at, every aspect of life, revolves in the arts… Can’t do anything without the arts. And in learning that, I realized that this job as an artist is a very important one, especially for me focusing on the Gullah and Geechee culture.

    C: What draws you so strongly to this particular subject?

    G: Well, I am [Gullah/Geechee]. And I figured, ‘What better way to start off in the arts than by painting about yourself?’ And as I studied the impressionist artists such as Gaugin, Matisse, Casset (?) I realized that they all said the same thing: ‘Paint what you know.’ So of course we see those works of impressionism, or cubism—all of those different isms of art—as something foreign, but the artists themselves did exactly what they knew how to do. They painted about where they lived and how they lived and the people in their lives and the cities and the communities that they lived in. Relationships, friendships with people, all of the scenery where they lived, that’s what they painted. So that’s what I’m doing; I’m painting what I know.

    …The landscape then and now really hasn’t changed that much in terms of the people. We have newer buildings and housing and growth, but the culture of the people is still the same. People still eat the same types of food. They like listening to the same types of music. They are very connected to the country and the culture. The change we see is mostly cosmetics…in that people dress differently, they look a little differently, they come in from different places.

    C: So, the trappings of the era changing?

    G: Exactly.

    C: I read an article that argued Gullah and Geechee life along the coast is one of those cultures that is fading out. I was wondering what you thought about that, if that was true from your perspective.

    G: From my perspective, it’s not fading out, it’s changing. It’s growing, it’s developing, it’s becoming more of a culture today in terms of the references to the areas and the history and people than ever was before. And there’s more of a celebration around it. When I was a kid, I never heard ‘Gullah’; I heard ‘Geechee,’ and it was more of a derogatory term. But I never heard of people celebrating Gullah and Geechee festivals. You have that all over the place now. But what’s happening is that most of the people who are doing the celebration are three to four generations removed, and I see myself as the artist in putting more of the authenticity back into the celebration of these cultures. And that’s what the artist does—it helps remind people that there’s an authenticity, there’s a culture and a visual look and an aesthetic to things, and that’s the importance of adding artists into a community. No matter what community you live in, no matter where you’re from or what you look at, your job as an artist is to embrace and reinforce the culture.

    C: The Post and Courier published an article in 2013 about your rice culture series and its approach to portraying the past—not as revisionist history, but as a reimagining of history in a way that is more empowering for the demographic you’re portraying. Can you tell us about that?

    G: My project—the Low Country Rice Project that I started—I wanted to find ways of embracing the conversation around history. When most people hear of, know of or think of African Americans, they only think of them from the perspective of slavery, people that were enslaved… And they know nothing about the ancestral history and culture of those people. So, with my work, I created the scenario of, ‘What if Africans came here like everybody else? What would we be looking at? What would the culture be like?’

    And you certainly would have more of the African diaspora cultural aesthetics. You’d have more of the African behavioral patterns. As if you’re from France, England, Italy, wherever, you bring your customs and morays with you—your sense of religion, spirituality, dress, behavior, food, music, you bring all of those things with you. The African has been under such a bondage, through all of more than 200 years of enslavement, they have survived with their culture intact. So my job is to illustrate it pictorially so people can see it and start reading it… Man has always read signs…

    C: You’ve been called a ‘narrative realist’. Is that how you’d label yourself as an artist? What does that mean, exactly?

    G: It means that I’m telling a story, and the imagery and the ability and the craftsmanship from which I’m telling the story is legible. That’s basically what it means—narrative realism. The realism is that you know what’s in the picture, and the narrative would be the story. So when you’re looking at those paintings from the rice series, you know those people are planning and harvesting rice. I think that’s what they mean. I didn’t call myself that. I just have to accept it.

    …The story is crucial because the story helps the culture to survive. I believe that we all have art as a part of our DNA, but everyone doesn’t have the opportunity or the privilege to spend 30, 40, 50 years actually drawing and painting without any interruptions of having to get a part-time job a second job or anything like that. I’ve had this luxury of being able to do what I love most, and that’s to draw and paint, and I thought that in having this wonderful ability to do it—which is like winning a lottery—I should paint what’s recognizable by the very community I came from. And I think that’s most important. So I’m not painting for museums and art galleries and collectors. I’m really painting for my community.


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