Well-known portraitist Jesse J. Gardner will present his most recent series of landscape paintings, On the Streets of Philadelphia, at FAN Gallery this October. This series explores several neighborhoods familiar to the artist; Kensington, Frankford, Northern Liberties and Manayunk. Sculptor and critic Leslie Kaufman has written of the artist’s work; “Gardner’s Philadelphia is not on any visitor’s map…he searches city neighborhoods and industrial locations to illuminate lost places whose histories were long abandoned and forgotten. As an urbanist dedicated to environmental issues, Gardner wields his paintbrush as a spotlight – to reveal both what we have lost, and to suggest what may still be reclaimed.”
Jesse J. Gardner grew up on farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and Canada’s Cape Breton Island. Before he began focusing on art, he was a volunteer firefighter at the Pine Plains Hose Company #1 in New York and worked as a long distance trucker and construction worker.
What is your first creative memory?
I was always drawing, and recall that the subjects that interested me as a young child were similar to my subject matter today: houses in the landscape. The first serious drawing was done around age 11, when I looked down the hill at the rooftops of my neighbor’s barn and outbuildings and produced a pencil drawing on a cheap tablet. My parents decided at this point that I was serious about being an artist, and gave me extra time off on our busy farm to draw and paint. I had an interest in preserving historic architecture as a teenager, and when we lived in Nova Scotia in the 1970’s, began making detailed pencil studies of Canadian National Railway stations that were being demolished.
How do you think about your body of work, the portraits and the landscapes? Does one inform the other or are they separate in your mind?
I see the subject matter as emanating from the same conscious desire to dig below the surface and reveal the inner light. It is part of the same narrative; restoring a measure of dignity to the invisible and overlooked. I have integrated the two occasionally. Look for these two separate themes to come together in my work in the near future. It is a natural evolution for the work.
You can find out more about Jesse’s portrait work and involvement with firefighters here.
How did you get involved doing the portrait work?
It grew out of an interest in the invisible service class–workers who keep the world moving but are taken for granted–rarely acknowledged or recognized for their efforts. My parents were very involved with the Labor Movement when I was growing up, so it felt right to be documenting in paint these hard working, ordinary people. I know that my concept of the heroic firefighter was shaped very early on, growing up as I did with farmers and mechanics as role models.
How do you choose your landscape subject matter?
I paint obscure places for the most part, far removed from the tourist itinerary and the “center” of things. When I paint familiar landmarks, like the Ben Franklin Bridge, I look for vantage points that most would dismiss as non-picturesque, even ugly. In the series River Town, I ended up painting the bridge from underneath, with a focus on the floating March ice and abandoned piers. The bridge was the focus, but treated as a secondary element. It makes one rethink the familiar and question assumptions.
Who are your influences art or otherwise?
I owe a great debt to my parents, who are writers and farmers and who shaped my approach to my work by emphasizing the importance of craft and honest labor and self-reliance. They exposed me and my siblings to a wide range of art and culture, which was unusual on a working Vermont farm. They taught us to do everything to the best of our ability. Most importantly, they nurtured an appreciation for lost and endangered places–we restored farm equipment, homes and barns, and cleared abandoned fields for grazing land.
My artistic influences are wide ranging. I love the expert drawing and chiaroscuro of Rembrandt and Velásquez, Whistler’s portraits and nocturnes. I appreciate Egon Scheile, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas for their draftsmanship. I am profoundly moved by Käthe Kollwitz’s etchings The Weaver’s Cycle.
There are Russian realist painters from the pre-Stalinist era who have had a profound effect on me. I feel a kinship with Grant Wood, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, and Edward Hopper. There is a contemporary painter named William Wray who I really admire. Brad Holland’s poster illustrations for the Public Theater provoke a visceral reaction in the viewer; he is a brilliant artist and this is a body of work that every artist who is interested in portraiture should study.
I have discovered Chinese modernists recently. Qi Zhilong’s series Chinese Girls has inspired me to consider a new series of large portraits. There is so much that I want to explore as an artist, and so little time.