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Rocking The Canvas: The Artwork Of 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."

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