Description This anonymous firefighter was painted from a newspaper clipping before I began working directly with firefighters to paint their portraits. At the time, the concept of focusing on each firefighter as a distinct individual had not quite jelled in my mind. I painted several large-scale works from newspaper stories, before I was finally introduced to a real firefighter, John McKernan, at a social occasion. John was interested in my ideas for a large poster series of First Responders, and invited me to the Fire Department's training facility on Randall's Island, where he worked in the Audio/Visual unit. I remember watching them edit the tape of a funeral, a task that they must surely have repeated several hundred times after September 11. I met Firefighter Carol Walsh there, whom I later featured in two paintings; 'First Fire', and 'The Woman from Engine Company 58'.
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.”