Keywords: Black History Month, BHM, Jonathan Green
Born: Aug. 9, 1955
Background/Significance: One of the most important contemporary artists of the Southern experience, Lowcountry native Jonathan Green has devoted his career to preserving the Gullah culture and its vanishing way of life with his brilliantly colorful paintings.
Growing up in the home of his maternal grandmother, Green learned the Gullah dialect and its customs and traditions passed down by West African slaves brought to the sea islands of South Carolina more than 200 years ago. But it wasn’t until he left the Lowcountry that he came to appreciate his heritage.
With no specific career plans after graduating from high school, Green joined the US Air Force to obtain an education and travel. In 1982, he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Art Institute of Chicago, making him the first known artist of Gullah heritage to receive formal artistic training at a professional art school.
Recognizing the significance of the culture he had left behind, he decided to return to his roots and paint the scenes and people he knew as a child. He captured images of everyday life — a woman hanging out laundry, men picking oysters — as well as special occasions in the Gullah community, like a wedding or christening.
The figures in his paintings are often rendered featureless to universalize people in their daily routines. It’s a technique that allows him to express “emotion through an understandable form,” Green said of his work.
Today, Green’s paintings are featured in the permanent collections of museums all over the world, from New York to Germany to Sierra Leone. His work has appeared on calendars, posters, the cover of a cookbook and even on Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s mobile wellness unit.
South Carolina connection: Green grew up in the rural coastal community of Gardens Corner, where he learned about his Gullah heritage and the simple lifestyle of its people. His paintings reflect the Gullah people’s inextricable connection to the Lowcountry landscape, with its broad expanses of tidal marshes, winding rivers and broad flatlands. The stunning scenery serves as the backdrop for brilliantly colorful and warm images of Gullah people he remembers from his youth.
Green currently lives and paints in his studio located outside of Charleston on Daniel Island.
Discover more: Jonathan Green’s artwork can be found in a number of South Carolina galleries and museums, including Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, the Greenville Museum of Art and the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum in Columbia.
His art has been incorporated into productions of ballet, music, theater, literature, film and video documentaries. “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green” will be presented by the Columbia City Ballet Jan. 31 at the Koger Center in Columbia and Feb. 28 at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. For more information or tickets to the show, click here. For more information about Green, visit his official website.