Madison Artist Jerry Jordan Is the Illustrator for the Children’s Book “Ida B. Wells Marches for the Vote”: Songwriting in Color
Above: Jerry Jordan in his Madison studio
Right: A partial view of the bookcover for “Ida B. Wells Marches for the Vote”
By Jonathan Gramling
Ever since he studied art at UW-Whitewater, Jerry Jordan has pursued his passion of painting at night — sometimes in the early hours of the morning — and on weekends while working at UW-Madison School of Education as an academic advisor. While he first worked out of a studio in his basement, he now paints in his studio off of Winnebago Street on Madison’s east side.
Portraits of his wife and children hang in the studio along with paintings of UW-Madison students he has used as models with several works in progress resting on easels.
Jordan uses music as his inspiration.
“I look on it as writing a song,” Jordan said. “I really admire songwriters and musicians. I enjoy listening to the creative process. It is very similar. You get an idea in your head and you try to put it on paper or canvas. It’s like songwriting in color, in oil. My paintings are usually very realistic. The people are. But at the same time, my backgrounds have a kind of fantasy. I’ve called it ‘Afro Futurism.’
I do a little bit of both. I take pictures of people. You’re kind of composing. You take a picture that you might have taken of a person 4-5 years ago. And it works for this idea. And you just take a number of pictures and you put them together. You’re composing a painting. You take pictures from different angles to see which one works. The painting that I am working on now, I took the photograph of the woman about two years ago. She was facing another direction, so I flipped the photo. And she was not playing a ukulele, but she will in this painting because I have a picture of a young man playing a ukulele. And so I’m putting the two together. I have a picture of my son playing a trumpet and he doesn’t play the trumpet.”
While Jordan is gifted, he has made sure that talent doesn’t lie fallow.
“It’s a result of a lot of hard work putting in the time,” Jordan observed. “I know a lot of people will say, ‘You have a lot of talent.’ There is a truth to that. But it’s really about putting in the work. I advise some art students in the School of Education. I always tell them, ‘Put in the time. Develop your skills to the point where no one can deny how good you are.’’ This painting took three weeks. And then I went back and made changes on it. It took a couple of months to do it actually.”
Jordan has been branching out from doing portraits for people. He was part of an exhibition in Milwaukee from May to August this year at the Wisconsin Museum of Art in the St. John’s on the Lake Gallery. The show was Expressions for a New Renaissance. And he was part of a show in Chicago.
“If people are going to be down in the Chicago area at the Museum of Science and Industry for this year’s Black Creativity exhibit, one of my paintings, The Drawing Party, that was on display last year is part of the advertising for the show this year,” Jordan said. “It will be on banners in the rotunda of the museum. I’m excited.”
Jordan is now branching out as an illustrator, partially due to his wife Nyra. During the pandemic, Nyra would hold Zoom calls with a painting of Jordan’s in the background. One of the people she spoke with, Pat Miller, is a children’s book author based in Madison. Miller asked who painted it and ended up getting Jordan a referral to a literary agent in Massachusetts.
For the past two years, Jordan has been working on illustrations for a children’s book on Ida B. Wells, the famed African American suffragette and journalist titled “Ida B. Wells Marches for the Vote,” a book by Dinah Johnson. Again, it takes a lot of work to illustrate a children’s book. It started off with research on Ida B. Wells to get a feel for who she was.
“I had to do a lot of research to look into her background and find photographs and read up on what she was doing at different times,” Jordan said. “I learned a lot. I always knew that she was a crusading journalist who wrote brought to light many of the lynchings of Black people. But her family life and her involvement with the suffragettes, I never knew that. She was a part of the Niagara Movement. She served as secretary of the National Afro American Council. And participation in the conference that led to the NAACP.”
And then Jordan started with what Johnson had written.
“I was given the manuscript and read through it,” Jordan said. “‘Page one, this is happening. Page two, this is happening.’ And so I developed sketches about what I see in my head as I read the book. Then I submit those sketches and turn them into drawings and then into paintings. It’s actually a painting on each page. It was about 35 paintings that I did for the book. It’s a lot of work.”
And it’s not like Jordan painted in isolation. It was a team effort.
“It’s about a two-year effort,” Jordan said. “They’ll give you a manuscript and you read through the manuscript and you develop some sketches for each page of the book and try to figure out what you think is going on as you read it. And then you submit those. And the author and the agent and the people from the book companies look it over. ‘Okay, we can go with this. Let’s develop these sketches a little bit more and turn them into drawings.’ And then they become drawings. And the next stage is the actual paintings. There is a lot of give and take, back and forth. ‘Can you change this? Can you have them facing the other way?’ It is challenging. I may have a vision of what I think is actually going on in the story. But the author, she is the one writing it. And so she knows what is going on. It’s a collaboration. It’s not really a big deal. I enjoy the process. It’s a creative process. We’re working together trying to get a collective vision of what we want to see.”
And after two years, the public will finally be able to see Jordan’s paintings in the book.
“It’s on Amazon or you can google Ida B. Wells Marches for the Vote and you can find it there. You can pre-order now on Amazon and it will be out on January 2, 2024. It will also be in the bookstores in January.”
Jordan has had a goal all of these years as he has expanded the reach of his work. While he loves working with UW-Madison students, Jordan dreams of being a full-time artist and illustrator. He’s even busy on his next book.
“I’m currently working on a book about John Lewis,” Jordan said with paintings on Lewis’ activist life propped up against the wall. “The John Lewis book is by the local writer Pat Miller. It will be published by Penguin Books. I’m excited about it.”
Perhaps Jordan’s dream is not that far away.