Within a month of knowing Jeremy Joseph, we were almost struck by lightning in the storm that felled the Wye Oak. He and I sat next to each other at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum the spring and summer before he became an art teacher. In a brief span, we talked fishing, art, Tom Robbins novels, music, literature, you name it. And then he rolled on to do what he should have been doing.
Jeremy taught both my daughters art in school, and over the years we circled back into each other. He has been a ceaseless inspiration for me to be creative. At one point when I caught up with him, he and a friend had put out a music album, he was painting every day and had his work in a local art gallery, along with a full-time job, his wife, also a teacher, was equally busy, and their two daughters in school, sports, etc. His motivation to make time to be creative pushed me to do the same. We have had similar takes on art, life, family, fatherhood, books, writing, and sports. Jeremy and his wife Tiffany are among the best people and kinds of friends you can encounter.
I’ve been a fan of Jeremy’s saltwater-based still life paintings for some time. And then this fall, a funny thing happened: he opened a solo exhibit of 30 paintings that were nothing like the work he had been doing. The new paintings were imaginative, primitive, celebratory, seemingly whimsical, communal. I wanted to see what was going on.
Jeremy has been serious about, and dedicated to painting for 22 years. He decided against going for a master’s degree in fine art, so instead set to making his own studio time and creating his own art history studies. From 1994 to 2003, he painted in a narrative style, telling stories with his art. And then he started looking more closely, observing more deeply, and in his meditative observations, the mundane became elevated. Still life painting became the medium.
“I had a lot to learn. If you are going to spend the time study and paint a striped bass or a mullet, it better look like one.”
Salt-water still life became Jeremy’s hallmark. His paintings sell reasonably well in the local galleries, he gets requests and commissions. He developed a nice niche. And then a new direction emerged.
Painting still lifes made Jeremy learn color in depth and develop his mark making. Teaching elementary school students, and seeing their unbridled imagination on a daily basis kept inspiring him. Add to that the fact that realist and impressionistic landscapes are all you will find within a few hours’ drive.
“I’d always wanted to do this imaginative work,” he said. “Maybe it’s punk rock vs Joe Satriani; maybe it gets back to Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ just working very simple.”
At first his idea was to convey the “first people,” or earliest people. Fishermen were going to be his transition. Then he started studying Meso-American figurines, Buddhist sculptures, and African masks. He saw stick figures and moved toward complete simplification. He started to notice some commonalities.
“People (artists and cultures) have been making the same eye shapes to represent contentment forever.”
Contentment, happiness became a current. Both conveying happiness, but also experiencing it in the moment.
In March of this year, Jeremy put up a studio in their back yard. It opens from the end and the side, and in the warm weather, hummingbirds flew into the studio while he was working. Birds and animals became a current.
“I get so much from the birds, the wings of birds, the flight of birds, that’s where my blood pressure goes down and where I go,” he said. “And I wanted to get across this universal happiness, we break bread, we share a moment, the thing I am after is just this little bit of happiness. And thinking about having a conversation with a merganser or a fox made me happy.”
Four months of painting every day, Jeremy created each of the 30 works in his studio. And had the full support of his gallery, the Grafton Galleries in Easton, to show the new works, even with them being a departure from what his work had been for the past 13 years.
“There were times when I thought that doing this type of work was a kind of career suicide for the still like work that I do. I wondered if I could make paintings that through the use of form and simplification, could dare someone not to smile, not to like it? I really wanted it to be about a mood, a shared moment or experience. Matisse said he painted for the tired businessman, the guy (or girl) who is tired at the end of the day.”
Part of that shared experience is captured in the painting, and part of it is shared with the person looking at the painting.
Breaking new ground after more than 20 years developing a style: I dig the creative courage that is behind a move like that. But what I get in talking to Jeremy, in spending time in his studio, is that it’s not about the painter, or the painting specifically; it’s more about the process.
What is it that gets you out to the studio, after teaching all day, after coaching sports, or family time, what is it that gets you to pick up the brush?
“You know it’s there, you know there could be a reward, you just have to get yourself out there. It’s the happy accident, the resolution of something, experiencing the unexpected. Honestly, it’s the smell, the sound, the feel of coming outside, you put yourself in the place where something can happen.”
Jeremy’s solo exhibit, “The Shared Experience” is on display at the Grafton Galleries, 32 E. Dover Rd., in Easton through the end of November. Some of his new works will remain on display after that.