Jonathan Green is an acclaimed American painter from Charleston, South Carolina whose work centers on his Gullah tradition and the nearby community of Gardens Corner, where he grew up.
“You’re always reminded of being black at its worst. It seems to almost be on purpose. Imagery, where it happens, the place where it happens. So that’s what the world sees. And because that’s what the world sees, that’s how the world reacts to me or any other black person.”
“I’m an American painter from the Southeastern part of the United States that happens to be of African ancestry. And so I paint about my people, my family, my community of Gardens Corner, South Carolina, which encompasses about, I don’t know, 10, 15, maybe 20 miles.
So I paint what I know, nothing else. I’m not trying to imagine anything. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m not trying to really educate anyone about art. I’m just painting what I know, because my experience as a person of color, having been brought up in the era of segregation separation, I never saw people that looked like me on many walls. And when I did see any resemblance of me, it was usually distasteful, disrespectful, and a complete un-American attitude towards the people that have given 300 years of their lives without any reward of freedom. So I paint with a sense of dignity and respect for the people that nurtured me and inured me with enough knowledge to protect myself, navigating this world as an African-American person.
It’s difficult to talk about what representation means because you see so little of it. And what little you see of it, there isn’t the most overwhelming, positive response around it. Hence here in the city of Charleston, state of South Carolina, arguably one of the most important heroes is Robert Smalls. And there are no great memorial to him. If it wasn’t for Robert Smalls, you and I would not be sitting at this table, perhaps having this dialogue. We would not have public schools. We would not have a robust coast guard that he started. He was a long-term legislator, statesman. He completely changed the Civil War by delivering [a supply] ship to the Union army. That’s what turned the tides of the Civil War. And yet there’s not any significant monument to him.
You know, as a black person, you’re always reminded of being black at its worst. It seems to almost be on purpose. Imagery, where it happens, the place where it happens. So that’s what the world sees. And because that’s what the world sees, that’s how the world reacts to me or any other black person. How often do we talk about people from Appalachia or from any ghetto uptown Chicago, white ghettos, we rarely ever talk about that in this country. You don’t tell me there are no white ghettos in this country? There are no Italian ghettos in this country?
I don’t have any discomfort about history and what has happened or who has done what. I can trace my family heritage back some 250 years in this country. I know where they came from. I know what they have done. And I glorify the edifice of the plantation from the perspective, it’s the work that my people did.
They cleared the land. They created the materials to build the houses, to maintain the houses, the gardens, to ensure the economic wealth of making Charleston the wealthiest city for over a hundred years in America due to rice, cotton, indigo. I know that. I know that when I walk throughout this peninsula, every home that has a historical marker on it was built by my people and maintained by my people until very, very recently. I know that. So as a black, Southern, gay, independent thinker, I don’t have any guilt.”
-What is your experience with art? Do you create it? Appreciate it? Collect it?
-What are. the ways you see your culture represented in artwork?
-Have you experienced the world seeing an incomplete picture of who you are?
-What are the ways you were encouraged and nurtured as a young person?
-Who were the people who helped pave a path for the life you have led?
-What are the pivotal moments that helped you find your path?
-What are the artistic representations you have seen that you would challenge?
-Where have you seen artistic representations that have honored others?