Rocking The Canvas: The Artwork Of Joel Washington

Joel Washington is a Bloomington-based artist whose colorful style has earned him recognition both home and abroad.

  • dia_0008

    Image 1 of 6

    Photo: Joel Washington

    Joel Washington

  • dia_0014

    Image 2 of 6

    Photo: Joel Washington

    Joel Washington

  • dia_0037

    Image 3 of 6

    Photo: Joel Washington

    Joel Washington

  • dia_0035

    Image 4 of 6

    Photo: Joel Washington

    Joel Washington

  • DSC_2839_1

    Image 5 of 6

    Photo: Joel Washington

    Joel Washington

  • DSC_2840

    Image 6 of 6

    Photo: Joel Washington

    Joel Washington

The paintings of local artist Joel Washington are identifiable around Bloomington for their vibrant portrayals of history’s greatest jazz and rock musicians, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa. He spoke with WFIU’s Megan Meyer about his work.

Two Fateful Phone Calls

Joel has enjoyed regional recognition for many years now. Back in January of this year, though, the extent of his popularity was confirmed by a very long distance call. “It was the U.S. ambassador to Thailand calling me from Bangkok,” Washington says. “One person who has become a huge fan of my work, he said, is the princess of Thailand.”

Washington made his Indiana University debut in 1999 with another call, this one eerily well-timed. Winston Shindell was the executive director of the Indiana Memorial Union at the time. Washington said the IMU was looking to feature more artwork by African-Americans.

“At the time he was telling me this, I was working on the piece of Wes Montgomery,” Washington recalls. ” I said, ‘Well, is there anyone in particular you guys want me to paint?’ And he said, ‘We had decided on Wes Montgomery.’ He doesn’t even know that I’m painting this picture of Wes Montgomery as he’s speaking to me requesting it.”

Washington’s portrait of Wes Montgomery became his first commissioned piece. It hangs to this day in the Indiana Memorial Union, on the Mezzanine Level, by the bookstore.

Washington’s Prevalence, In Bloomington And Beyond

In addition to his work at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand and at the IMU, Washington also has work displayed elsewhere on the IU campus: at the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center and the Atkins Living Learning Center. Soon, he will have a piece in the Chemistry Building, too. Washington’s work is also in the collection of the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, as well as a in a number of private collections and downtown Bloomington businesses.

Washington confessed that seeing some of his own paintings around town can be a strange experience.

“Sometimes you’ll go into a place and see a piece you did a long time ago, and it can take you back to when you did that piece – how much fun you had, or a certain period of life you were going through, good or bad, or simply something where the artwork just carried you through that time.”

A Diverse Family Of Influences

For Washington’s style – bright colors and sharp lines – he cites among his influences Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, LeRoy Neiman, Peter Max and other pop artists. But before all of them, Washington says, he gives credit to Ringo Starr.

When Washington was child, he watched the Beatles’ film The Yellow Submarine, which inspired him to become an artist. And as an adult, he takes artistic cues from the movie to this day.

“I’m always seeing something in it that I missed the last time,” Washington says of the film. “It just has so much going on in it that I get excited every time I notice something new, whether it’s in the background or how the characters are drawn. It’s just loaded with art and imagination.”

The Birthday Show

This year, the city of Bloomington honored Joel Washington’s own art and imagination by organizing a show for his birthday.

“City Hall funded the show. I had created new piece for it, plus added new pieces that were made for a show before it at the Waldron Arts Center, and had asked people who’d purchased my artwork in the past if I could select certain pieces that they owned.”

Having a party in his honor drew a lot of fans, but Joel says that not all shows go so well. “From some of the art shows I’ve gone to, they get mixed reactions. Sometimes they straight-out get wonderful reactions. Hopefully, mine will get good reactions.”

Old Wisdom For Budding Artists

Despite Washington’s steady rise in popularity, he hasn’t forgotten what it takes to get as far as he has. “It can be uphill, it can be downhill. I mean downhill in the sense that it can be a lot of hard work – you know, peaks and valleys. But at the same time, as long as you’re keeping focused, I believe anybody will get where they want to be. In the end, it’s up to them.”

Joel offers another morsel of wisdom for budding artists. “You know, if you want something bad enough, sometimes that’s what goes along with it. It’s like Frederick Douglass once said: ‘Where there is struggle, there is progress.’ I try to live by that.”

External Links

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer is an online and radio producer for WFIU's Arts Bureau and local food program Earth Eats. Megan grew up in South Dakota and later lived in France for 3 years. She was an intern for NPR's Science Desk in the spring of 2009, and joined WFIU in June 2009.

View all posts by this author »

  • Jaime

    I love Joel Washington and his artwork…..
    Jaime Sweany, OwnerWandering Turtle Art Gallery

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Indiana Public Media Arts & Music:

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

Search Arts and Music

Stay Connected

RSS e-mail itunes Facebook Twitter Flickr YouTube

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Indiana Public Media Arts & Music:

Recent Visual Arts Stories

Visual Arts Events RSS icon

More Events »Submit Your Event »

Arts & Music is on Twitter

Find Us on Facebook

This Week on Earth Eats

If It Doesn’t Melt, Is It Still Considered Ice Cream?

ice cream sandwich

A Cincinnati woman was alarmed to discover the ice cream she serves her family doesn't melt. How does the FDA define "ice cream" anyway?

Read more »

Earth Eats is a podcast, radio program and blog of the freshest news and recipes inspired by local food and sustainable agriculture.

More from Earth Eats »

This Week on Focus on Flowers

Bad For Bees

bee dance

Some of the plants we buy for our gardens are pretreated with neonicotinoid pesticides that are harmful to bees.

Read more »

Focus on Flowers is a weekly program about flower gardening hosted by master gardener Moya Andews.

More from Focus on Flowers »