POWER ART: Jerry Craig’s vibrant works dig deep into his roots

Author:  Dawn A. Davis
Karl “Jerry” Craig’s canvases are powerful. Their vibrant colors, textures and found items like stones, cowrie shells, wire, metal, feathers and fabric mimics the landscapes he paints that ‘speaks’ of his beloved Jamaica, Africa and racial identity.

Craig Jerry flagThe Jamaican-born artist’s recent solo exhibition at Fort Lauderdale’s African American Research Library and Cultural Center reflects his masterful use of color, design and patterning to create pieces that tell stories. His multicultural heritage and African roots are proudly front and center in his work, considered contemporary abstraction.

For example, the series “From Whence We Came” deals with the concept of race and the belief that all humans originated from one African ancestor. The faces within these landscapes sit proudly as reliefs on the otherwise flat plane as if trying to catch our attention.

Some masks are black or white, or black and white, some brown, but all reflecting the mix of heritages that define us: Thick lips, thin lips, high cheekbones, straight and broad noses. The environment they inhabit completes the lesson as we follow trails of sand, fiber and hieroglyphs that define our past.

If only we could all remember that we were all of but one race, the world would be a far better place,” said Craig walking through the gallery.

‘DANCE’

Craig’s pieces also ‘dance’ with light. His use of iridescent paint juxtaposed with curving lines and strong shapes opens up his paintings as if lit from behind.

As a result, the viewer gets closer, seeking the source of the illumination. The artist teaches through his work.

“I enjoy using color and textures in a jewel sense as this reflects my spirituality and materializes my soul,” Craig explained.

His large scale “Pitchy Patchy Dream Catcher Series” brings together the strong visual elements of Jamaican and Native Indian cultures. The myriad strips of multi-colored fabric that hang from the pieces are reminiscent of his childhood memories of jonkunoo dancers that paraded Jamaica’s streets at Christmas. The dream catchers Craig incorporates into these pieces fit perfectly into the themes of spirits and talismans that also define the jonkunoo characters.

“As I grew older I learned that this tradition stemmed from slavery, and this was the only time that they were allowed to celebrate,” he explained. “Because of this, the annual parade of jonkunoo took on a new meaning to me.”

STYLIZED

One piece in particular features a stylized version of the American flag adorned with dream catchers and feathers. With splashes of paint spread across the massive canvas and the fabric strips stirring in the circulating air, the piece dances with meaning, bringing to light the blood, toil, and sweat of black and Indian people that helped build the United States.

There are layers of messages and lessons to take away from Craig’s art pieces. They’re also visually stunning. The pieces come alive with elements from nature and the light and voices that seem to emanate from them. The dizzying array of colors stimulate the senses.

As head of the Jamaica School of Art (now The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) in the 1970s, Craig guided the artistic curiosity of budding young artists. He also studied graphic design in Britain, the land of his European ancestry. However, the artist’s paintings delight in the sensibilities of his birthplace while incorporating his African roots.

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