Jonathan Green Contemporary Southern Artist

Canvas to culture: Exploring Jonathan Green’s Masterpieces

Story by Toni Shah


From serene days on the beach to stormy, white capped waves, the wind on the South Carolina coast is a captivating force of nature that  adds its own distinctive charm to the coastal experience, as does Jonathan Green, world-renowned  painter, printmaker, and storyteller. The wind was ever present in  Jonathan’s life in the small, lowcountry, coastal town of Gardens Corner, South Carolina, where he grew up in the Gullah culture – a distinct and vibrant culture evolved over centuries from West African heritage. 

Reflecting on the inspirational origins for his work, Jonathan explained, “Every day of my life consisted of wind – sometimes a windy day, sometimes very slow, hot wind - there was always wind. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, people wore more fabric, seemingly,  and visually, you had much more to discern itself with. It wasn’t just about a dress. It was about a dress and shadows and then folds in the dress ...  all up against a landscape that may have some moving leaves or grass. So, I think my biggest inspiration from Gardens Corner probably could be movement.”

Growing up in Gardens Corner didn’t just lend inspiration from a visual point of view, but also from a cultural one.

“My mentor, Mr. Jacob Lawrence, told me in the ‘70s - when all young artists want to show an older artist their work – ‘Just keep telling your story, and that’s what I’m doing – I’m telling stories. So then, I took that advice seriously and started to record my life history as best I could for me. That’s my experience and my visual outlook on things, my sensibility to nature, water, people with dignity.”

In his 20’s, Jonathan attended and graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, after a stint in the Air Force. He even became a security guard at the museum because he loved being there so much. During this time, he developed a deep appreciation for Impressionism.

“It’s one of the most incredible periods of art for me,” he said. “There were so many variations on skin color, even though the artists themselves were half-blind. And so, that just resonated with me. So much of it was set in the idyllic countryside, which is where I’m from. Many of those artists were able to bring in such light and beauty into hardship. People were having difficult times during that period in Europe (1867-1886), but there’s always beauty in living, and that’s basically what I strive for.”

His love of Impressionism led to a discovery of Africanism as an influence, followed by Asian and Mexican art. His works often depict scenes from his Gullah culture and African American life in vibrant, primary colors. But his works also include African and maritime themes, with water present in most of his paintings.

“Well, my color choice is very, very simple. It’s blue, and green, and white, and brown, and black, and red, mostly primary colors. That’s what people wore in terms of colored clothing, in the ‘50s and ‘60s,  - primary colors and very simple graphic designs on the clothing itself.”

Jonathan said that he didn’t think very much about bringing in the African component while he was growing up in Gardens Corner, but as an older, traveled, and well-read person, he realized its importance and began to incorporate it into his work.

Jonathan recalls  advice from respected artists during his early  European travels. They all told him, “paint what you know.” And it dawned on him that, “all those great European artists, they simply painted what they knew. And I came to a point of understanding the value in that simple advice because when you paint what you know, it’s endless, endless imagination - you never run out of subject matter.”

While his work is celebratory of the beauty and resilience in the Gullah community, he also addresses the challenges that the Gullah face, which he says are challenges that they and everyone else in America and around the world are facing.

“People are moving around the world, and land is becoming a very scarce commodity.  I actually see the Gullah community and culture more as explosive.”

According to Jonathan,  the reality of the Gullah culture is that over the past 100 years, it has been merging with other cultures, as more and more of the Gullah young people have migrated to  big cities, such as New York and Philadelphia.

In further elaborating on the Gullah culture, Jonathon explains, “When you think of it as a culture, then everyone has access into a culture; you just have to be mindful of what the culture is in your behavior. If anything, it’s more about people choosing between being a part of the distinctive Gullah culture of the lowcountry, or just being a part of the general southern culture, which is also Gullah culture.”

Jonathan isn’t just a painter. He is also a master storyteller. Stories and their narratives play an important part in his work, though it took time for him to hone his craft well enough to tell the stories the way he felt they should be told.

“In order to be a storyteller, you have to have pretty good craftsmanship in the art, you have to know how to draw the figure, and yet draw different types of things when you may not have access to imagery,” he explained. “And so, storytelling is very easy for me because I know how to draw. And I know how to paint well. So, it’s never an issue of my trying to convey a story. It’s a matter of what story I want to tell, like when I did the series of moonshine paintings in homage of my grandfather who was a great moonshiner. I mean, that was very easy, and simple for me, but for many people a very complex story, because most people don’t know about moonshining. They don’t know about the principle of moonshining, the making of moonshine, the ingredients, and the locations of people who hide the moonshine stills  in the thickets, so that they can’t be found when planes fly overhead. So by the time you look at the series, you immediately know the story. In looking at the series, I want people to create their own story, so it becomes sort of interconnected.”

Jonathan’s art has been exhibited and collected all across the world. When asked how he perceives the reception of his work in different cultural contexts, he responded that the reactions to his shows are always enthusiastic, robust, and joyful, from women, especially.

“People leave the paintings feeling much better than before seeing them – that’s what I’ve been told over and over again,” he said.

He also uses a multidisciplinary approach, working with different artists in other genres.

“That allows other artists to work from and with my paintings. I’ve had ballet, symphony, theater, movies, entertainers, and musicians using my work.” His work is now used in every facet of creative expression. The most accessible one to date would be ‘Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green.’”

He is also a talented muralist and has murals featured in Charleston and Japan.

As an artist who has achieved such great success, one might wonder how he navigates the tension between commercial viability and remaining true to his vision. Jonathan attributes the sustainability of his vision to  the consistent support  from buyers and collectors.

“I have buyers that are three and four generations within a family that have supported me. I have always relied on my collectors,” he said.

These days, Jonathan listens to the wind in Charleston where he works in his studio and takes visitors by appointment only. To learn more about Jonathan and his work, visit

To learn more about the rich history of the Gullah Geechee culture and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, visit

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