Dewitt Jordan - A genius who carried on

Friday, March 8, 2002

HELENA, Ark. -- Dewitt Jordan liked oil paints as much as he did whiskey. Vivid works on canvas became his legacy. Heavy drinking became part of his undoing.

A quarter-century after he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn., an exhibit of 21 works has opened at the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena, about 50 miles south of Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River.

"Dewitt Jordan, Delta Artist: Genius at Work" depicts life in the impoverished Mississippi Delta. Most striking are his paintings of black cotton-pickers and sharecroppers, but the show also includes commissioned portraits of Southern white aristocrats.

"Dewitt drank and carried on, but he was serious about (his art)," said George Hunt, a Memphis artist. "He frequented the juke joints and reproduced the images he saw. Like most geniuses, his work was not recognized until his death. And he knew that would happen."

Using oils, Jordan painted realistic scenes, employing strong contrasts between light and shadows, while generously applying color to reflect those seen in rural Southern farming communities. Browns, yellows and greens dominate.

Hunt said Jordan's unique ability to depict poverty, agrarian life and racism drew adoration from artists but contempt from some members of the black community, who said the paintings reinforced painful stereotypes.

Jordan was born in Nashville, Tenn., in 1932. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Helena, where they owned and operated a funeral home. He eventually kept a studio above the mortuary.

He graduated from segregated Eliza Miller High School in Helena in 1951. Although he had toyed with watercolors and pastels as a young boy, Jordan did not have his first formal art lesson until college. He received an undergraduate degree from East Tennessee State University and studied at the California School of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco State and the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.

In the late 1950s, he worked for Warner Bros. as a sketch artist, producing show cards to promote movies.

"He didn't like the commercial stuff for Warner Bros.," said Dollnetta Jordan, Jordan's second of three wives. "That's why he left that job. He enjoyed the farming community, the black struggle, racism and politics."

Jordan left the West Coast for New York to concentrate on portrait painting but left for Arkansas a year later.

"His roots were in the South, even though he knew his potential would never be realized in the South," Hunt said.

And his drinking was notorious. His former wife said Jordan would listen to classical music and drink while painting nude models. Sometimes, he was naked himself. Hunt said Jordan always had a half-pint of Wild Turkey in his hand and loved to stroll down the street, taking occasional swigs.

"When he was drinking, he wanted to be like John Wayne," Hunt said. "Dewitt never got involved in a fight, but he would cut you up verbally."

The Jordans' children, Vince Jordan and Cynthia Jordan-Hubbard, remembered the nights their father would smoke a pipe filled with Turkish tobacco and labor over a canvas, capturing every detail.

"On his painting 'Guitar Man,' he spent a couple of extra days doing the veins in the man's arms just right," said his son, a systems engineer in Washington.

After years of encouragement, Hunt persuaded Jordan to move to Memphis.

"There was an opportunity to sell his work more than in Helena," Hunt said. "Dewitt had the potential to make a hip-pocket-full of money."

A private developer purchased one of Jordan's first major works to hang in the lobby of the Rivermont Hotel. The painting, "Birth of the Blues," is now displayed at the First Tennessee Bank.

The bold-colored work shows a group of cotton-pickers singing and playing instruments on a dock on the Mississippi River. Jordan also was paid to paint a portrait of Lt. George W. Lee, a city legend in black politics. And he was known for his portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr.

Art collectors in Memphis began to take note. After art buyer Beverly Goodwin Sousoulas saw Jordan's "Birth of the Blues," she commissioned the artist.

"He was eccentric and crazy," said Sousoulas, who introduced Jordan to other potential patrons. "He was so talented, so creative. He could paint, he could act, he could write -- if he had lost his hands, he could have become a singer."

Sousoulas said Jordan visited her the night of his death. She said he had been drinking and told her that he got into an argument with his third wife.

"I tried to get him to go home and sleep it off, but he wouldn't," she said.

No one, including his family, seems to know what happened the night Jordan was shot to death in Memphis.

Jordan's mother suffered a stroke three years ago and was left in a coma -- his father had already died. His aunt, Thelma Kelley, said she attended the opening of her nephew's show in February.

"The exhibit is wonderful," Kelley said. "His mother would be thrilled."

Art collectors from Arkansas and Tennessee are loaning the works to the Delta Cultural Center, located at 141 Cherry Street in downtown Helena. The show runs through December.

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