While Jonathan Green was attending the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s, far from his rural home in Beaufort County, he read Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again and bristled at its premise.
“After reading the book, I can understand perhaps why some people feel that way, but I never wanted that book to taint my feelings about home,” Green says.
During Piccolo Spoleto, Green will present a lecture with a slideshow of his work, which has always portrayed the landscapes and people of the Lowcountry.
Green grew up in Gardens Corner, S.C., a rural Gullah community where his family has lived on heirs’ property for generations, and he never intends to leave his home behind. Today, as an internationally acclaimed artist based in Charleston, he still returns to Gardens Corner once a month to visit family and attend the church where his mother is a minister. His bright oil paintings still come entirely from memories of Gardens Corner — and nowhere else on earth.
“What I know is that my home is a place of survival for African Americans for 300 years, and that’s not something I’d give up on very easily, nor would I want to,” Green says. “And as an artist of expressions, I also know that the images of my people are not readily available. They’re mostly in liquor ads and cigarette ads or some level of incarceration, and I wanted to be able to show to the youths of today and tomorrow that there is a culture. This is your culture, and I will paint it for you, keeping in mind humanity, love, and respect.”
The Gullah, still largely based on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, have deep roots in West African cultures. American planters purchased enslaved people from the region to work on rice plantations, which played an outsize role in South Carolina’s economy by the mid-18th century. Along with their knowledge of irrigation and planting, the enslaved people brought art, foodways, traditions, dances, and a creole language.
Growing up, Green says he knew the names of his family members going back seven generations, as well as where they came from and what plantations they once worked on. “I know of no other culture,” Green says. “That was my world, that was my dream, my fantasy, my place in life.”
Today, in addition to his painting, Green has several artistic projects in the works, all connected to Lowcountry and African-American history. He is painting illustrations for a children’s book about Robert Smalls, a man who escaped slavery by commandeering a Confederate transport ship in the Charleston Harbor, served as a pilot in the Union Navy, and then returned after the Civil War to serve in the Statehouse. He has a set of shawls emblazoned with his prints for sale in the gift shop at Charleston Place Hotel. And he’s putting the finishing touches on the set designs and costumes for Porgy and Bess, which will enjoy a revival at next year’s Spoleto Festival.
Throughout his career, Green has concerned himself with the portrayal and celebration of the culture he comes from. He speaks about the mission with urgency, noting that few traces remain of even the once-prosperous rice industry that brought Africans to the United States in chains.
“The people that were a major part of it, the workers, the culture of people, the removal of people from West Africa, the breeding of people to sustain those rice fields and to build all of these plantations, all of these cities, churches, cultural centers, really the first American art form in terms of music, dance — was sort of wiped off the face of the earth,” Green says.
Green’s paintings show all of the above, plus the myriad cultural expressions that persist in the Gullah community today: quilts, baptisms, people at work in the fields or celebrating a good harvest. To the extent that he’s telling a largely forgotten story, Green sees himself as a radical artist.
“There are ways of being sort of, quote-unquote, radical and also being a spokesperson and also telling a very uncomfortable story that still exists today. And sometimes you have to do that through beauty,” Green says.
Indeed, whatever the political or historical implications of his work, his paintings are first and foremost beautiful. Lowcountry natives will instantly recognize his depictions of grassy wetlands and enormous straw hats, but the colors have been amplified and made dreamlike: The horizon is on fire over the water, spartina grass is limned in oranges and blues, and a woman’s face has turned nearly indigo on a sunny day.
Green has one other project in the works: The Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, an initiative he started in 2013 to promote understanding of the region’s rice-based economic history and encourage discussions of race and culture. From panel discussions to school programs, he’s working to keep a conversation going — much as he has done in his art for decades.
“As a kid, when you see total segregation on Sunday, the most segregated day of the week, as a child who is destined to become an artist, you’re a very visual person, and then that vision becomes thought,” Green says. “So the thought then raises the questions, and you’re just trying to figure out ways to answer them. My way of answering is through simplicity.”