Jonathan Green Biography
Gained New Respect for Gullah Heritage, Created Art from Everyday Life
The first individual of Gullah ancestry to train at a professional art school, Jonathan Green has created an acclaimed body of work that documents this rural culture, which emerged among West African slaves who lived on the Sea Islands or along the adjacent coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Descendants of these people have preserved ancestral ways and speak Gullah, a Creole language. Daily chores, activities, and celebrations of Gullah life provide the subject matter for Green's paintings and prints, which have been compared to the work of such major artists as Edward Hopper, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Green's work has been exhibited across the country and internationally, and is included in the permanent collections of several major museums.
The second of seven children, Green was born August 9, 1955, in Gardens Corner, a rural area along South Carolina's southern coast. Though he lived in New York City for a few years with his mother, who had moved there to seek better employment, Green returned to South Carolina before he reached his teens, and was raised there by his maternal grandmother, Eloise Stewart Johnson. At Beaufort High School, Green became interested in studying art, but did not believe he could make a living at it. After graduation he joined the U.S. Air Force, hoping to receive training in illustration. Instead he was assigned the job of cook. Disappointed, he found a technical college in Minnesota, near where he was stationed, where he was able to study illustration. His teachers there, impressed with his talent, encouraged him to consider making art his profession. This led him to apply after his discharge to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), from which he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1982.
His time at SAIC, according to Ronne Hartfield in Gullah Images: The Art of Jonathan Green, was exciting but also isolating for a black Southerner. "Green found himself in a time of self-questioning and redefinition," Hartfield wrote. Because slaves had been torn forcibly away from Africa and were often denied access to their own history, the cultural traditions that they succeeded in passing on to future generations acquired special significance. For this reason, commemorating the past has been especially important to the African American community, and artists have contributed in a special way to this dynamic. As Hartfield explained, the black community's "understanding of itself is imaged by our artists who, by taking events out of history and giving them form, can help us to create pragmatic formal meanings for living within history."
Gained New Respect for
With a renewed appreciation for his heritage after his years away from South Carolina, Green decided to create art that honored the culture in which he grew up. "I wanted to go back to my roots," he explained to Carroll Greene Jr. in an article quoted on the Gallery Chuma Website. "The older people were dying, and I began to see [the Gullahs] differently. I saw them as a people with a strong link, probably the strongest link with Africa of any of the black American people. I had studied African Art, and I began to appreciate a certain uniqueness." In Gullah communities, extended families live close to the land, raising food, catching fish, passing down stories and folktales, and making crafts. Particularly famous are their handwoven sweetgrass baskets, fashioned according to West African traditions. They also weave fishing nets and make other items used in daily life. Nature, family, community, and spirituality provide life with purpose and meaning. "I was always interested in things, in how crafts were done, who everyone's relatives were and the religious functions of the community," added Green.
That he should make it his life's work to illuminate this way of life came as no surprise to his family, for he was marked from birth to bring special honor to his community. According to Gullah tradition, a baby born, like Green was, with a caul—an inner fetal membrane covering the head—was touched by magic and destined to play a special role in the community. For Green, this role was achieved through art. As Pat Conroy put it in his foreword to Gullah Images, by focusing on his native community, Green "discovered himself as an artist and made his works both magisterial and universal."
Though Green's early paintings showed the influence of cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso, he later moved toward a style emphasizing flat color fields. He "delights in the juxtaposition of one flat color field to another," wrote Greene, and his Gullah paintings are noted for their "masterful combination of pattern and abstract color spaces." This is well exemplified in "Pride" (1990), an oil painting in which a woman and two girls in striped dresses and ribbons sit in a leaf-printed chair on a patterned carpet, all against wallpaper printed with huge roses and leaves. Almost all of Green's work features human figures; while they often wear simple white dresses that billow in the wind, just as often they are dressed in fabrics printed with bright polka dots, flowers, and stripes.
Created Art from Everyday Life
Explaining his sources of inspiration in The Artist as Native, quoted in Gullah Images, Green has said that "I am drawn to rural environments that afford a sense of space and silence and an opportunity to unobtrusively observe daily functions of others as we all pursue life's mission of work, love and belonging.… It is the small, but critical tasks of daily life that I find most stimulating and reflective of the quality of essential, personal, community, and social values." Indeed, he often paints people working their fields, fishing at the shore, dancing, swimming, or going to church. In several of his canvases, clean white sheets billow on backyard clotheslines in the sun. Indeed, a whole series of oils painted in 1994 focus on the image of laundry. "Grandma's Wash" is a relatively simple composition of horizontal bands of blue sky, white laundry, and green grass, punctuated by the voluptuous shapes of the grandmother's dress, straw hat, and large laundry basket. More colorful, "Washed Quilts" juxtaposes white and vibrantly colored quilts against a deep blue sky and green background marked by almost-black shadows; a dark-skinned woman with yellow-striped dress, broad straw hat, and grass basket bisects the picture. "Monday Wash" employs a similar composition, but in this case the young, attractive laundry-woman—whose wide blue-striped skirts flare out in the wind like the red ribbon that ties her hat—provides the central focus while plain white sheets hang in the background.
This bold use of color is one of Green's trademarks. "The Gullah people depicted in Jonathan Green's world," observed Conroy, "look like they got dressed while staring at rainbows." Not only does the artist depict the vibrant tones of printed dresses, bathing suits, shirts, hats, and scarves; he also paints skin tones of bluish black, deep brown, coffee, bronze, gold, orange, ivory, and pink. Even within a single family ("Family Wading," 1991), parents and four siblings have skin tones ranging from deep brown to yellow. "The brilliant colors and lyrical movement in Green's paintings cannot be dismissed as sheerly representational," wrote Hartfield. "Green employs color and the particularity of domestic moments to allude to shared human experiences.… His explorations of Gullah traditions are, on one level, documentation of the daily rituals of people's lives in a traditional African American community unmarked by the process of assimilation."
Green's work has been widely exhibited in the United States and has been placed in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia; the Afro-American Museum of Philadelphia; the Naples Museum of Art in Naples, Florida, where the artist now resides; and the IFCC Cultural Center in Portland, Oregon. In 2005 the Columbia (South Carolina) City Ballet presented a new ballet based on Green's work, "Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green." New York Times critic John Rockwell commented that the ballet "suits the depictions of the paintings, which seek in their bold designs and folkish clarity, reminiscent of Haitian art, to capture the lives of the Gullah peoples."
In 1996 Green received an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from the University of South Carolina. He has received numerous other awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award from the city of Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1993; the Clemente C. Pickney Award from the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1997; a History Makers Award in the Fine Arts in 2002; the Order of the Palmetto Award in 2002; the Man of Distinction Award from the Education Foundation of Collier County in 2003; and the Century of Achievement Award from the Museum of the Americas in 2003. Green has also served as honorary chair of the School of the Art Institute Bare Walls in 2003.
The Gullah culture that comes to life on his canvases, Green acknowledges, is disappearing. "I know I can't save a whole culture," he told Greene, "but as an artist I can help create greater awareness perhaps." While Gullah families respond to the challenges of modernization, Green's work remains a tribute to their resilience and vitality. "His art is a love song to his past," observed Conroy. "You imagine him singing as he paints, an ode to joy and the bright astonishment of memory."
Gullah Images: The Art of Jonathan Green, University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
New York Times, February 7, 2005.
"Coming Home Again: Artist Jonathan Green Returns to His Gullah Roots," Gallery Chuma, www.gallery-chuma.com (August 3, 2005).
"Jonathan Green," University of South Carolina-Aiken, www.usca.edu/aasc/greenjon.htm (August 3, 2005).
"Jonathan Green: A Master of Historical Memory," Center for Southern African-American Music, www.sc.edu/csam/green.html (October 11, 2005).
—E. M. Shostak
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