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Arts & Culture
These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

SC's Jonathan Green celebrates 'Gullah Spirit' art book launch at Charlotte's Gantt Center

When people flip through the pages of Jonathan Green’s new book, they won’t just be looking at 179 of his latest works of art. They’ll be looking at his life.

“Forty-five years of painting, exhibiting, social responsibility, helping out wherever I can in the arts — that’s what you’re looking at,” Green said this week from his studio in Charleston, South Carolina.

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Jonathan Green Studios
Jonathan Green

Green, 66, is renowned for his work depicting scenes from the Lowcountry, his native Gullah culture and the Southern experience. He began a tour for his second book, “Gullah Spirit: The Art of Jonathan Green” on Wednesday in Charleston, but he’ll be in Charlotte on Friday for a reception at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture.

Like Green’s first book, 1996’s “Gullah Images,” the new book features plenty of vibrant paintings showing Gullah traditions, life and the pastoral setting of the salt marshes along the South Carolina coast. But in the 25 years between the two publications, Green’s techniques have changed to use bolder brush strokes and more depth and texture, according to the University of South Carolina Press, which published “Gullah Spirit.”

Using art to share the story of the Gullah Geechee people — descendants of enslaved Africans who have lived on the sea islands along the Carolina and Georgia coasts for hundreds of years — is vital to Green. Community, he says, is everything.

He recalls being around older people when he was growing up, hearing about history, spirituality and life in general.

“Learning those things at an early age, it is always with you,” Green said. “It is something you can never forget, and I guess I’m one of those that have never forgotten. I have a great self-image of myself and pride of my family for generations and what they have done with the oppression that many of them were in.”

And he says it’s important to share a fuller history. It’s something he thinks about constantly, living in an old Southern town where tourists come to learn history but don’t always get the complete picture.

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University of South Carolina Press
The cover of Jonathan Green's "Gullah Spirit" is seen.

“Much of that history has practically vanished African and African American people,” Green said.

Green says his book is also a way to show just how important art is — especially for young people.

“Without art, we are basically machines,” Green said. “And that message needs to be orchestrated throughout our communities, especially communities of color. Because those images are seldom seen unless it’s in, oh, cigarettes, alcohol, abortion, needles. When you look at billboards, that’s basically what you see of people of color. And I’m just one artist trying to make a message that you can come from, as they say, humble beginnings — rural communities — and go on to illustrate for a larger audience the value of people.”

He’s certainly done that.

Green grew up in rural Beaufort County, South Carolina. He went on to live in New York, studied art in Chicago and his works have been displayed in venues across the U.S. and even internationally. He’s been named an ambassador for the arts for Charleston, been awarded two honorary doctorates and given the key to the city of Columbia, among other accolades.

But he made a point of returning to South Carolina.

“I think the older you get, the more you want to become settled, and I just happen to have been born and raised in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

In 2016, he designed sets and costumes for the Spoleto Festival’s “Porgy & Bess” rendition, and his works inspired the Columbia City Ballet’s traveling “Off the Wall” production. Green’s work has been featured in an exhibition at the Gantt before, and one of his paintings, 1989’s “Folding Sheets,” is in the center’s permanent collection.

Lately, he’s been using the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic to spend time in his studio, focusing on his art. And after more than four decades as a professional artist, he says he’s not trying to prove anything to anyone.

“I'm painting something that people know, understand, they can relate to,” he said. “I think that's the true success of an artist: visual imagery, something connecting to past, present and, perhaps, future.”

While signed copies of “Gullah Spirit” and his first book can be bought at the event, he says not to expect to find him sitting around signing books. Instead, attendees will get to hear Green talk about his life and work in a conversation with Gantt staff.

“I’m just going to sit there and talk about myself a little bit,” he said with a chuckle.

The reception for the launch of “Gullah Spirit” is Friday at 6 p.m. You can learn more about the ticketed event at the Gantt Center’s website. You can learn more about Green and his work at jonathangreenstudios.com.

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