Hailing from Paterson, NJ, Jonte Drew is a visual artist whose work often explores issues around masculinity and physicality as they relate to the perception of Black men. A graduate of William Paterson University, where he received both a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2018 and Master of Fine Arts in 2021, Jonte is currently the resident artist for Art Fair 14C. The group’s residency programs were created to expand opportunities for artists who may not have access to other residencies, including artists with disabilities and those with recent MFA degrees.
We recently visited Drew in his Jersey City studio to learn more about the residency, his life and work.
Jersey Arts: Tell me about your journey as an artist. How did it start?
Jonte Drew: My mother always put me in basketball camp when I was younger and I hated it! My brother and all the boys in my family played sports and it wasn’t for me. At around age 11, my mother finally got it, and enrolled me in art classes at Lena Di Gangi Gallery & Studio in Totowa, NJ. Lena Di Gangi inspired me to start doing portraits. I took classes with her for several years, until I had access to art classes in my high school. So, I always studied art.
Tell me about your experience as a 14C resident.
I just graduated in May 2021 with my MFA, and one of my goals was to try to get a residency. I applied to a few, and luckily I got this one. The studio space is much bigger than my previous space. I’m able to move around a lot and I feel free. Studio spaces are expensive and I don’t know if I would have been able to create this work without this space. I’m grateful and excited to see what comes from this.
Entering your studio, I notice this green pastoral environment with the lamb, and immediately think of Psalm 23. Is religion a central theme in your work?
It’s interesting that you picked up on that. A lot of my work deals with Christianity and spirituality. The title of my recent work is “The Black Sheep in Green Pastures,” a reference to Psalm 23. I intentionally wanted to place myself in this spiritual, religious place. It’s a triptych, and the number three also has religious significance.
In the background of the third painting, I added the Paterson Great Falls, where I am from – my own background, in the background of the painting. In this body of work, the lamb is representative of innocence, of Christ and God’s people, but on another level it is representative of my younger self.
The black lamb is a recurring symbol throughout several bodies of work. Tell me more about what the black lamb means to you.
We all have a younger self that we tend to carry through our lives, and the lamb represents mine. I pretty much grew up feeling like the “black sheep” of my family and I wanted to embody that feeling in my work. Also, I am African American and the sheep is black, so I often play with that.
In different bodies of work, the lamb – representing my younger self – is placed in different environments. In one series, I placed the sheep with me in real world situations like my bedroom, barber shop, and basketball court. All of these settings were really important for me as an African American boy. Experiences in these places kind of shaped me and molded me, although I often felt like an outsider and disconnected from my community.
In each of these paintings, the central figure is me, and the lamb is always with me but I’m not always aware of his presence. You as the viewer are not always sure if it’s really a living animal there, or a random symbol, or if it is a spirit.
In the green pasture, I interact with the lamb. I become fully aware of his presence, then finally accept and embrace this lamb. Here, we are in an ultra-saturated, idealized environment. It is a spiritual realm.
I actually started drawing the lamb in 2017 and had no idea it was going to lead to this. I was originally going to make a single work, “The Black Sheep,” but soon after, I read Psalm 23 again and was inspired by the green pastures. I realized that there was a spiritual aspect to the symbol that resonated, and a visual that I wanted to explore.
Tell me about the chalk pastel pieces you are working on.
Durags are important in the Black community, especially to men when they want to grow their hair out wavy. My room is full of durags of all colors. During the pandemic, I didn’t get a haircut for about 10 months, and it was killing me! So, I pretty much lived in my durag. And I started thinking about the durag as a metaphor for taking care of one’s self and mental health. The plants and flowers are all healing varieties with medicinal properties, such as echinacea, lavender, and chamomile.
How is your creative process different/ similar when working in different media?
I’m more confident with drawing than painting. I started with graphite and micro pens; I feel a sense of control in those materials. Paint is more free-flowing, which can be a little more intimidating, especially when I’m working in layers and thinking about drying time.
How has your work helped you process your emotions?
This is the second body of work that I’ve done that’s coming from a raw, emotional place. It’s been very healing. When I’m making art, it demands my full attention and I’m not really thinking about anything else. I’m completely focused on what’s in front of me. I feel very present in the moment, which is good for my mind.
I see you have a whole wall of inspiration images in your studio. What artists have inspired you?
Toyin Ojih Odutola inspires me because she also works in pastel, and creates portraits that tell a story. Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley are inspiring and unique. I also love Van Gogh, Japanese block prints, and botanical drawings.
It seems like your formal art training and art history really informs your practice.
Yes, I feel lucky to have had access to so much formal training. Though, I didn’t really start taking art seriously until I got to college. Until then, it was just fun and therapeutic for me. In studio and art history classes, I was exposed to so many different artists and it opened my mind to a whole new world. There have been artists for centuries before me telling amazing stories, creating amazing works. That pushes me to create work that’s beautiful but also has spirit and a deeper message.
A lot of people stop making art after college. Why do you think that is? And what was different for you?
I think a lot of people buy into the myth of the “starving artist.” They don’t see art as a viable career. But, this is the one space in life that I am confident. I know what I want to say and how to communicate visually. I take a lot of pride in that. I never wanted to do anything else. Art is what saved me and keeps me sane. Art keeps me alive.
I saw that you have worked on a few public art projects recently. Any memorable experiences from working in the public sphere?
Yes, the Black Lives Matter street mural in Paterson was a really special experience. Led by Christopher Fabor Muhammad, an educator and muralist, we worked on it for four days. Everyone of different generations worked together; there was a feeling of strong community. I think that project really inspired and invigorated the community to the possibilities of public art. We had fun but delivered a necessary message. It showed the power of art and community.
I am interested to know if you have advice for young artists.
Find your voice and be intentional about your message. Try your best to be authentic. Study works that inspire you, but don’t directly copy. Get as much inspiration as you can, and then find a way to make your work unique to you. Finally, don’t stop creating.
What’s coming up that you are excited or hopeful about?
The 14C Art Fair! In December, we have a show here at the studios and I will have a solo show to culminate this residency. After this, I just want to keep creating work.
Photos in header: “The Black Sheep in Green Pastures,” “It’s About Time,” and photo of Jonte Drew in his studio. All photos by the author, Rachel Fawn Alban.