Gullah traditions bring forth vibrant brush strokes
By Kalene McCort
Photographs courtesy of Jonathan Green
With bold colors and subject matter deeply rooted in the Gullah tradition, painter Jonathan Green brings whimsy and grace to scenes of Lowcountry living. His glowing depictions of mahogany-skinned men and women — under grandiose hats, arms outstretched — call to the onlooker to come in for closer inspection. In his detailed pieces you can almost feel the balmy breeze waft through fields of gold. Each paintbrush stroke possesses a piece of his ancestry — a visual love letter to the South, the very region that has acted as his muse for over four decades.
Like patches of pluff mud that hug the marsh or sturdy oaks draped in moss, his paintings are synonymous with the South Carolinian experience. Born and bred in the rural town of Gardens Corner near Beaufort, S.C., Green was surrounded by the natural world — which fostered a childhood fueled by curiosity and creativity.
“At age 5, my grandmother always saw me drawing in the sand with a stick and was fascinated at how well I could do this,” Green said. “At age 6, she brought me a paint-by-number set, but the images looked stiff and uncomfortable, so I chose not to paint within the lines but to make the figures move.”
Green has managed to carry on that sense of motion throughout the evolution of his work. His subjects appear to be caught mid-dance, mid-step or even mid-swing. Sea Island living is splashed upon the canvas in an iconic way that prompts you to revel in its vibrancy.
His work has been showcased locally at Boone Hall Plantation’s “Wine Under the Oaks” all the way to The Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. Throughout his career, Green has gained a loyal following — one that eagerly awaits the unveiling of his next brightly colored scene of life outside the big city.
As a youth, he dabbled with the idea of setting out on a career path that would bring him closer to the land and the bounty that springs from Lowcountry soil.
“When I was in late middle school, I thought about being a farmer because I loved working in the gardens and with the farm animals and I studied agriculture, which I enjoyed,” Green said. “I still tried to sketch as well as I could the animals and people working in the field and the trees and landscapes.”
This year, Green’s painting, “Harvest Gathering,” was chosen as the poster for The Spoleto Festival — our region’s celebration of all forms of artistic expression. The public was quick to voice their opinion, touting Green’s poster as one of the best they’ve seen in years.
“I don’t take for granted the caring and support I have received from so many citizens from Charleston and the neighboring communities,” Green said. “I love those who are involved in cultural and civic activities that address music, dance, theater, poetry, literature and the rich history of the Lowcountry of South Carolina.”
In addition to designing the Spoleto poster, Green served as creative director and costume designer on the opera “Porgy and Bess,” a production whose six scheduled shows at The Gaillard sold out months prior to showtime.
As a graduate of the Chicago Institute of Art, he found it refreshing to dive back into the world of textiles that he fell in love with years prior. The characters in this special Spoleto production, decked out in lively prints, looked as though they had broken free from one of his oil-clad canvasses and onto the stage.
Green’s work makes us want to travel down a dirt road, lined with blooming azaleas or sit at the end of a dock we’ve never been to, watching the tide rise and fall. His paintings possess a celebratory essence and bring the magic of the everyday to the surface. The joyfulness of simply being alive can be found in the brightly hued depictions of rice harvesting, fishing, horseback riding and canoeing.
“The most rewarding aspect of my being an artist is being able to make a living and to have my art incorporated into literature, dance, theater, music, opera and all forms of the arts,” Green said, who is currently working on a children’s book.
As for his process, Green manages to wake way before the sun. At 3 a.m. each morning he’s out of bed, listening to the trickle of the coffee pot — a caffeinated-call to rise and shine. While he once had a studio on Daniel Island, he now lets the creativity flow in a modest space on Hasell Street. Above a storefront, Green works the days away crafting pieces that stir emotion.
“I always listen to classical music in the background that reflects the themes I am painting and it enhances my concentration to create the atmosphere and composition of the painting,” Green said.
While creating can be all-encompassing, Green cherishes the time spent drafting ideas, mixing paint and letting the journey unfold.
“Once I know the theme I want to express, such as one’s relationship to the land, the concept of work, love and belonging, and a sense of humanity, my creative juices seem to flow,” Green said. “I begin with a series of sketches and then choose the medium I wish to use. It may take six months or two years before the works are completed, but the creative process in accomplishing this is exhilarating.”
Like palm roses woven out of sweetgrass or perfectly seasoned shrimp and grits, Green’s work echoes the essence of this cherished region. He documents history and culture in ways that delight the eye and encourage reflection. Let Green be your tour guide into those secret shorelines and swamps that dot our land. Lose yourself in the emerald plots of lush grass that uninhibitedly meet the indigo shades of sky. Rediscover this place we call home. E
(Pictured in header: “Geech,” a limited edition lithograph that was created for the 40th NAACP Image Awards.)