Description This portrait was chosen by the FDNY as the promotional image for the Fire Cadet Program in 1994, marking the first time that an African-American appeared in a city-wide Fire Department promotional campaign. Wright, who retired with the rank of Lieutenant in 2001, went on to direct the Cadet Program several years after the poster series debuted. That the cadet program poster with Sheldon's image appeared at all, was the result of a few small miracles. After nearly two years of getting nowhere trying to convince the FDNY to use the Unsung Heroes portraits for a poster campaign, I wrote President Clinton to enlist his support for a postage stamp series. Previous letters to the Postmaster General on this subject had been unfruitful. As luck would have it, the White House forwarded my press kit to Mayor Giuliani, who in turn sent it on to Fire Commissioner Howard Safir. Lt. Charlie Hubbard of Engine 5, who had seen the firefighter portraits at New York's Fire Museum, was working for the Commissioner at the time, and was assigned the task of checking out my story. This was in 1993. In less than a year, the poster, designed by Izumi Inoue and expedited by Lt. Hubbard, was on the streets of New York, quickly becoming a sought-after item by young cadets and members of the public. The poster campaign was underwritten by Brooklyn Union Gas and Councilman Victor Robles.When I painted his portrait in 1992, Lt. Wright was a firefighter in Ladder Company 111 in Brooklyn. I was introduced to firefighter Wright through the Vulcans, the fraternal organization for New York's black firefighters. During the day long painting session, we spoke at length about the issue of race in New York. He recounted that as a child, he never saw black firefighters on fire trucks in his Brooklyn neighborhood. This influenced his decision to become a firefighter.At the end of the day, he viewed the nearly completed painting for the first time. His reaction was of incredulity, enthralled that hi
Jesse Gardner, Philadelphia Member Since April 2012 Artist Statement Jesse J. Gardner was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1956. The son of teachers and writers, he grew up on farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and Cape Breton Island in Canada. He has lived the life of his subjects, working as a volunteer firefighter at the Pine Plains Hose Company in the late 1970’s, as a long distance trucker and as a construction worker. At age 24, at the advice of an early mentor, Paul Chaleff, he moved to New York City to further his studies in drawing and painting. He went on to study at the Art Student’s League where he was influenced by the works of George Bellows, John Sloan and Robert Henri of the Ashcan School. Another formative influence was the work of Edward Hopper.
He went on to study Interior/Garden Design at Parson’s School of Design and the New School, where he came into contact with the work of Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco, who had been commissioned to create the Table of Universal Brotherhood for the school in 1931. These powerful murals, and the works of American Regionalists like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton helped shape Gardner’s ideas about the American worker, and led him to start the Unsung Heroes series.
In 1986, he left university to work for Parson professor Halsted Welles, a visionary sculptor and landscape architect. Since the late 1980’s, he has divided his time between design projects for the built environment where he has focused on restoration and transformation of land sites and buildings, and exhibitions of urban landscapes and a portrait series featuring NYC firefighters. For the past 16 years, he has been represented by F.A.N. Gallery in Philadelphia.
In both his landscapes and portraits of American workers, he seeks out the underappreciated and overlooked as subjects. The underlying narrative in the paintings is one of restoration and transformation—a redemption of the forgotten. Light and the absence of light are the tools that he uses to reveal transformation and restore dignity to his subjects.
He looks for integrity in the way things are made, a kind of vintage quality, which is revealed in the objects that he paints. The riveted sides of a rusting ship, utility poles with their neatly fastened struts and wires, the trusses of an old bridge. Things that were built by ordinary working class Americans who had real skills and took pride in their work. The bones and muscles and sinews of a forgotten industrial America are his subject matter. In a review of the exhibit Rivertown, Leslie Kaufman wrote that “As an urbanist dedicated to environmental issues, [Jesse] Gardner wields his brush as a spotlight—to reveal both what we have lost, and to suggest what might be reclaimed. … In his quest to open our eyes by transforming the industrial landscape, something unintentional has happened. He has created exquisitely beautiful works of art.”