Fred Jamar is easily one of Charleston’s most recognizable artists. His paintings of Charleston cityscapes are brightly colored reflections of the city at its most familiar and most unique, like the steeple of St. Michael’s rising over Broad Street, Rainbow Row, or one of the many pink or blue or yellow single houses that are so distinctive to the Holy City.
The Belgian-born Jamar himself is pretty recognizable, too. With his long white hair, matching beard, and eyes that literally twinkle, one would never guess that he spent 30 years on Wall Street as a financier with J.P. Morgan before retiring to Charleston to paint and enjoy a slower life. And he’s taken to it well.
Maybe it’s this peaceful energy that is also at work in his art, which seems to move the scenes he paints into a world that is simultaneously brighter and quieter than our own. His trademarks are a deep, dark blue sky and rounded “bubble trees” that are fanciful and fun without seeming cartoonish. They leave you wondering what the rest of this world is like, this place where you could step out of a row house and be surrounded by pink trees with wiggly trunks. “The trees are a way to add an artistic touch to an otherwise recognizable street,” Jamar says. “I can play with the colors … otherwise the trees would just be green. Some artists, when you take classes, they would say, ‘Don’t paint the trees like bubbles!’ … but that’s the artistic approach, you know.”
Jamar, we should note, has never taken a painting class, possibly because he has no interest in being told how to properly paint his trees, but also because when he told his father he wanted to be an artist, around the time he was finishing high school, his father would not allow it. “He said, no, you have to have a serious job,” Jamar says. The artist has been painting as long as he can remember. Some of his first work was theater scenery, which he made at school. “I went to a boarding school … and over the weekend, or over Easter vacation, we would make plays. We would build all the décor, the scenery, make the costumes,” he says. “So I used to paint on anything, cardboard or whatever, and around that time is when I said hey, this is interesting.” He even has one of his first paintings, which he did on a vertical piece of wood intended for theater scenery. Though the date on the painting is 1957, the signature is exactly the same: FRED, in all capitals.
After his father told him, essentially, to find a real job, Jamar went into military service as an officer with the military police. Then, because he still didn’t know what he wanted to do other than art, he worked for a year in a paper mill. Then came maritime college, and several years sailing the globe with the Merchant Marines. But painting always remained a part of his life. “I have a painting I will never sell, painted in 1963 on the beach in Rio de Janeiro.” For a canvas, he used a piece of tarp stretched across pieces of wood scrounged from somewhere on his ship. “And the paint is all from the engine room,” he adds, smiling. The painting is of a busy Paris street, painted from a magazine photograph (the same technique he uses today, though the photographs are often his own). It was also during this time that Jamar received his first commission, when a carpenter asked him to paint his wife during a long voyage.
When he had had enough of sailing, Jamar returned to Belgium to pursue a degree in finance, after which followed his long stint with J.P. Morgan. He and his family discovered Charleston when he worked in New York, and they relocated here about 15 years ago. He began painting more and more and eventually was approached by the owner of the Wolf Gallery, which changed ownership a few years ago and is now Robert Lange Studios. “I never thought for a minute I would sell a painting,” Jamar says. “I was painting for family and friends, and for myself … I was painting with a dark sky, and the bubble trees, and when the gallery guy came to my house with his wife, I said I’ll have to change the way I paint. He looked at me and he said no — don’t change anything.” So he didn’t. “I haven’t changed much,” he says. “[My painting] has become more precise, maybe … but when you look at a painting, you say ah, it’s a Fred!”
And though he does paint different scenes from time to time, like a series of clowns that hangs in his home, or a rural scene of rolling hills, he remains best known for his paintings of Charleston. His new show at Robert Lange Studios, which opens Aug. 3, has plenty of new Charleston scenes, as well as a couple of pieces that stray from his usual subjects. One of the 30 paintings is a beautiful view of Greece; another two, in a throwback to his set and scenery painting days, are tall cutouts of telephone poles, complete with rope that will be hung like telephone wires.
Longtime collectors of his streetscapes, however, have nothing to fear — he’s not giving up his best subject any time soon. Charleston remains Jamar’s most reliable muse, and she has enough secrets to keep any artist busy for many years. As Jamar says, “I see the row houses, the streets, the telephone poles, and I think, oh, that would be a really nice painting!”