The perspective of an artist is fascinating. Their relationship to themselves, their work and lastly, the world around them is so complex. It’s safe to say that artists are sponges, soaking up everything they encounter.
The first time I met painter, muralist and sculptor Jay Coleman was when he lived across the street from a friend of mine. I knew him only as a tattoo artist who did amazing work. The first time we worked together was during my professional stint as executive director of Dupont Underground in 2016.
The entrance on 19th Street was disgusting. I know because I cleaned up after the homeless on a regular basis. There was trash everywhere. The concrete sides were an eye sore. Things needed to change – immediately. I reached out to Coleman, having by then seen some of his paintings. Thus began my education, with the most important lesson being an artist’s ability to transform.
Once Coleman got going, he was the most popular man on the block. The homeless, who used to threaten me and sometimes soil the front steps, would crowd around the mural and watch him paint. They’d offer their critiques. Residents, tourists and passersby guided the direction of his mural.
Now, he works out of a studio in Brentwood, Maryland. The space is owned by the Giannetti family, descendants of Gregory Louis Giannetti, an architectural sculptor known for his work on the US Capitol, Washington Cathedral and several U.S. presidential seals. It’s all very fitting: Coleman working out of a building owned by the descendants of such a man. Sculpture work is such a unique and ancient form of art that you need a certain kind of advocate of the arts to allow you the proper physical and emotional space to create.
When you enter, there’s a museum-like cadence to the space. Even dirt or clutter isn’t really dirt or clutter. It’s something in development. He has what I consider the loft unit. To get to his studio, you must walk to the end of the hallway and up a wooden set of stairs. The room is well-lit, with large windows providing natural light.
Upon entering, you are greeted by a sizable fist. It’s the mockup of his piece “Communessity,” a bronze sculpture located in front of the Barry Farm Recreation Center in Anacostia. The sculpture portrays a set of fists bumping, inspired by President Obama’s trademark fist bump. The fist that sits in his studio is an eggshell-colored mockup most likely made of plaster, which is kind of funny. I wanted to be like, “Why you have a white fist in here?”
On the wall is a mural of Charles Hamilton Houston, a 20th-century Black attorney whose impact is worthy of an entirely different article. If you ask Jay whether he’s a sculptor first and a painter second, you’re going to get a loaded answer.
“When people are trained in art, they are trained in a Western approach to Western art or a Western approach to global art, which was adopted,” the artist says. “[This is] how you get your Picassos. [Artists] get dope after they steal African art.”
In 2015, Coleman was commissioned to paint a mural of Mayor Marion Barry. The colorful mural depicts Barry in the popular pose with his hand on his chin wearing a substantive grin. The piece was commissioned by developer Stan Voudrie of Four Points, LLC and the unveiling was attended by Mayor Bowser along with Barry’s late son Christopher.
Somewhat of a portrait artist for hire – especially for important figures of color – Coleman has been commissioned for portraits of luminaries like the former president of Cape Verde, Pedro Pires, which was deeply personal to him.
“My great-grandfather was a sea captain from [Cape Verde] who was killed on his ship,” he says.
He’s also completed portraits of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, commissioned by the Angolan government, and Rosa Parks, which hung at her memorial service.
The building Jay creates in houses amazing artists. The first studio you walk by when entering the building belongs to Raymond Kaskey, whose works are arguably the highest profile out of the bunch. If you’ve ever seen the well-lit and beautifully sculpted Carter G. Woodson Memorial recognizing the D.C. native who was donned as the father of Black history or the sculpture portions of the World War II Memorial, then you’ve seen Kaskey’s work.
“Joanna was a really humble and talented sculptor,” Coleman says. “She was a badass. She was really humble, and she gave me a shot to have a space. She’s also the reason I was part of the Walk of Fame, and then she died before the project got off.”
A joint project between the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Walk of Fame was conceptualized in 2008 and meant to commemorate iconic Washingtonians of the past. Fast-forward to 2019 and the faces of Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown and Ella Fitzgerald are permanently in the ground near the Howard Theatre.
“[It was the] scariest art project I worked on in my life,” Coleman says of the Walk of Fame. “It was hard as f–k. It scared me. It stressed me out terribly.”
He sought the help of Kaskey and other sculptors for direction and willed his way through it, and now it’s firmly in the ground for passersby to walk by or over, many never knowing the story behind it. With heavy commission like these – some of these bronze sculpture commissions are for a few hundred thousand dollars but the materials eat up most of the costs – you’d think artists like Coleman would be able to keep the wolves away.
When I ask him to speak about the dark moments along his artistic journey, he says there’s a difference between people who paint and people who are good at Photoshop.
“When you cookie cut things, […] that’s the darkness. Everything that can be done cheaply and quickly is the way it goes. There are people who are accustomed to that, so wack becomes the new good. I think that at a certain level, I don’t allow myself to go there – and that’s a choice.”
If you ask him about the work he’s most proud of, he doesn’t hesitate. It’s his children Dzata and Shiloh.
“That is my greatest art: my kids and my relationships. It’s the Blackest thing I did, to raise my kids to be decent people. I am the antithesis of the celebration of mediocrity, because I work hard. And I don’t work hard because I want people to kiss my ass. I’m a regular guy. I just want to be known as a regular guy who works his ass off.”
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