Artist Jonathan Green

By:Shani Gilchrist

Date:9/9/2014

South Carolina artist Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green's striking, vibrant images are drawn from his upbringing and life along the South Carolina coast.

I have this weird thing about celebrities. I don’t like to bother them for an autograph or picture. Because of that I was very timid when I first met one of South Carolina’s true artistic celebrities a couple of years ago at the South Carolina Arts Gala. We were there to celebrate Jona​than Green’s (and Pat Conroy, and a few other heavy-hitters in the arts) acceptance of a Eli​zabeth O’Neill Verner Award, the state’s highest honor in the arts.

My husband, however, will talk to a tree until its leaves start to swirl to the ground, and much to my mortification, he marched right over and started running his mouth. Despite my clumsy embarrassment we all hit it off and have been friends ever since (it helps that Green is a very friendly and easy-going kind of person!) I recently spent some time with Green in his Daniel I​sland studio surrounded by history books, his massive paintings and the works of his friends and contemporaries. Leaving for lunch was one of the most difficult things I had to do!

Where are you from?
Born in Gardens Corners, S.C., Aug. 9, 1955, at 5 a.m. in the morning.

When and how did you start painting?
I was introduced to painting when I was probably 4 or 5 years old through paint-by-number sets and the like, but my family would say that I was born drawing in the sand and marking up the walls and the floor. Anything that would allow me to make a mark, make an image. I was very active in doing a lot of drawing assignments as a kid. But I never thought of myself in middle school and high school as an artist. I wasn’t that familiar with the term “artist.” So in school I was active in art class, and it was a release for me after having to spend hours on a school bus and having to spend a lot of time doing things that I didn’t have any interest in doing.

What is your process, from start to finish, when working on a project?
First is thought. My mind is totally engulfed in the subject that I’m thinking about. And then from the mental thought is the step of drawing. I draw as many sketches as I need of subject matter until I’m comfortable enough to take it to the canvas. Then I start the shading process, which is very important and done with pencils before I approach the canvas with black and white paint. I’ll do a fully rendered cartoon, taking the drawing to a three-dimensional version. Most of my paintings, behind the color, look like a negative. I like using and building colors up, so I use layers of colors that are sometimes translucent, sometimes very opaque. I usually have anywhere between 4 to 6 layers of paint on the canvas.

What other artists inspire you?
Watching artists who inspire me is like watching soap operas. There are just periods where I’m really into a particular artist or movement or style. I love the work of Georgia O’Keefe. Of course Titian, the works of the WPA painters, Milton Avery. It’s always changing. I think I’ve learned more out of the enjoyment of Hughie Lee-Smith’s work than probably any other artist, and Jacob Lawrence, as well.

Tell us about the moving of Gallery​ Chuma, who has represented your work over the years, to the new portion of the historic Charles​ton City Market.
Chuma has been a successful gallerist for over 20 years. We met when I first started doing lithographs and silk screens. Chuma had the knowledge and the presence of a gallery in Charleston, and my sister sold my lithographs for him for about 15 years. The transition from the John Street gallery to the marketplace gallery is a very important one because it is in the heart of Charleston in a way that puts it where a lot of tourists pass through in a historical landmark. We need to be there in other capacities, as the sweetgrass basketmakers are there, and it is really important to have people in the middle of the true history and culture of a place. In that area you see all of that. You have the Historical Society there, there are some wonderful shops and restaurants, and you have a nice gallery. Now you have the indoor section and the outdoor section, and the people there try to make as much of what they sell about South Carolina as possible.

How do you stay engaged with your art in your everyday life, at home and when you’re out and about?
Just by breathing. I never think of not being a part of or associated with it. It’s in every fiber of my life.

What made you move back to South Carolina from Florida?
Naples afforded me a great place to not have to think about anything and just focus on my work. Moving back here was the perfect time to reengage myself in the culture and the importance of my work and myself and what I’m doing. It’s another form of intense focus, if you will, that I’m actually here seeing, hearing and tasting all of the culture. And I have access to my family more. I’m in church every second Sunday performing my duty as usher.

What are your favorite places in the Lowcountry?
My mother’s home, our family church, the homes of my relatives. I love visiting restaurants because Lowcountry cusine is very important to me. I’ve probably had everything else in the world to eat from different countries, and the food here is just unbelievable. I would like to visit the local plantations more because those are the places that were maintained by our ancestors, and I want to really get a sense of understanding the unbelievable ingenuity, respect and culture and craft that they did in their real lives.

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