Artist Jeremiah B. Jenkins has lived all over the world, experiencing life as a foreigner and undocumented worked in South Africa, looking at places and life from a perspective that many Americans never do.
And my introduction to his work and to the artist began like any typical day, where many may not even pay attention to the art and culture around us.
I stopped into the Coffee Pot Cafe, on South Main Street next to the Main Library. Owner David DiDomenico has chosen to use the coffee shop’s high ceilings and bursts of natural light to showcase one of the largest local art collections west of the Akron Art Museum. It is also the only place Jenkins has chosen to display some of his paintings. I had seen some of his work online, but had not been fortunate enough to see his work in person.
This one particular day, as I rushed through the the library’s bookstore, I realized that I was an hour early for my next appointment. I had time to wander around looking at all the interesting things on display. I ordered a cup of coffee and began to explore.
I laughed at the drawing of the fish out of water. Took note of the beautifully executed landscapes and settled down in the alcove to enjoy my moment of freedom. My phone buzzed. I ignored it. I took a sip of coffee and let my eyes follow the lines of the wall up to the ceiling.
A woman dressed in long sleeves and a colorful skirt looked down at me from a tall canvas. Her blue eyes were fixed in a sad expression, the dark space around her mouth made her look incapable of speech. From the canvas to her left a man, or maybe it was the same woman when she was younger, stared across the room as if waiting for something to happen.
The three other canvases at either side were as captivating and thought-provoking as the two bigger pieces. To me, each one looked like a study of human emotion and a loss of personal freedoms. Every inch of these canvases was full of motion, color and texture. They made me think, they made me want to own them, to hang them on my wall and study them with the changing light.
It also made me want to know more about the artist. The painstaking precision and patience that had obviously gone into each work of art revealed very little of the man whose paintbrush had created such thought-provoking pieces. I had to meet him.
Three days later I find him waiting for me on the sidewalk. Jenkins’ wiry hair, cropped short at the neck and sides, makes him look like a college professor. His blue green eyes follow me as I walked toward him.
He smiles when I recognize him. He is carrying a black satchel strapped across his chest and a rather large cup of coffee in his left hand. His clothes are rumpled enough to make him look cool, but not so wrinkled that he looks unkempt. His beard is neatly trimmed, and I smile. I know too well that most painters don’t look this neat when they are at work. This must be his day off.
We make small talk as we look for a place to sit. The coffee shop we choose to meet in is quiet and half full. We choose a table by the front door, and he sits with his back to the wall. As we talk I notice that his eyes are constantly searching the room. He glances through the window often, and he studies the faces of every person who enters. He seems unsettled and uncomfortable.
I start by asking him the easy questions: Where are you from? Where do you live? Are you married? He focuses his eyes on me and begins to talk, slowly at first, but as we get to know each other better his voice grows louder and more animated. He waves his hands as he talks, and shift his weight forward in his seat.
“I grew up in Akron, I’m an Akron boy. I grew up in Firestone Park, went to Roswell and Firestone Park Elementary, and Garfield for my freshman year, and then went to Wadsworth. I was a Boy Scout, and almost made it to Eagle (Scout).”
He takes a deep breath and smiles. He readjusts his feet under the table and leans back a little.
“Adventuring was always a part of my life,” says. “I was living in Cleveland in 2002 after the Twin Towers fell. I already knew I didn’t know anything about the world. Belonging to that stock of liberals that spend most of their times talking about things and little time doing anything about it, I thought I should go experience the world a little bit.
“Two or three months later I was in Michigan, leaving everything behind. I had no idea what I was doing. I was there for six months learning about where I was going, and getting ready to travel. Living and working together with all these people from Japan, Brazil, South Africa, other parts of Africa, Danes, Norwegian, Chinese, Koreans. Learning practical stuff and team-building, and then I was shipped out with someone else’s team.
“I was doing secular human work there. It’s not religiously inspired. We worked with very practical stuff: water, security, education, an HIV program. I went to Zambia and I worked there and got really accustomed to Zambia. I decided, when my time was done there, to stay on to work with other organizations.
“I went to Denmark and Norway in the summer time after the Olympics. That set off a chain of events. I became an instructor in Massachusetts, then I left to pursue my own thing, and then went to Zimbabwe. I was gone 12 years in an out. To regroup I would come back to Akron and Cleveland.
On being an undocumented worker
He looks bothered by his thoughts. He leans forward, his arms tense, his fingers pressed hard against the table. The angles on his face become more pronounced as his skin tightens around his cheekbones.
“I cut my teeth as an adult. I had to grow up fast, especially because I was a foreigner. I have an understanding of what it’s like to be an ex-pat. Whether you’re coming from Switzerland or you’re coming from Maco (Philippines), going to live in another country and navigating through all the social mores and norms, and figuring out the culture, you’re always an outsider. You’ll always be an outsider.You could live there for 25 years but you will always be a little bit on the outside; even if you speak the language, because you’re still not a member of that culture.
“I did a long period in between South Africa and Zimbabwe. I got an organization there built up, a small one from the ground up, with my Zimbabwean colleagues. That was at a time when there were bread lines, and getting a bottle of water was very difficult. There was nothing there. You had to work real hard to feed yourself.”
His gaze drifts over to the window. He watches people walk by for a moment, but I got the impression that the scene he is looking at isn’t really there.
“I was working in South Africa because I had work there. I was getting paid under the table because I didn’t have a work permit. I was doing quite well, and I would go back to Zimbabwe with that money and do different things, going back and forth.
“It started to become too difficult. The roots I had set down were starting to give.”
He pauses and his hands become tense. His fingers beat down on the table, adding emphasis to his words.
“It was either leave or never leave. I left right before things might have been a ‘done-story’ for me. I came back to Akron because this is where my family lives, it’s my safety net.”
I ask him if he would let his son become the same kind of traveler he was. At first he nods yes, but then nods no.
“It’s fun to bum around in other countries, until you have a cavity, or you have a medical problem, then what do you do? I didn’t have a work permit. Not having a citizenship, it’s coming out of pocket. So I walk in and say ‘I have this problem, I need to pay in cash, can you give me a number?’ and then I have to pay, and that’s not fun.
“There is a danger too that things that can happen to you because you’re not accounted for. No one is going to miss you, no one is going to know. It’s going to be a long time before friends and family realize they aren’t getting emails from you anymore. Especially in some places in Africa, they are really easy to disappear from.
“Nobody knows you’re there. You don’t have any rights. There is a sinking feeling you get when you get caught or are called out. You don’t know what is going to happen, and it ranges. You either get someone who is really nice and understanding who tells you what you need to do, or you get someone who’s ‘take him out back and beat his ass.’
“There are some South African immigration officials who are as hardcore as any American immigration official. They don’t put up with it. ‘You can’t do this in our country. We’re not doing it in your country: why are you doing it here?’
“I was floating around. South Africa would give Americans a six-month visa so right before that would expire I would travel to Botswana or Zimbabwe. I would get three months in Zimbabwe and then I would go to South Africa and get a new six more months. Then I would go back to Zimbabwe for three more months and come back to South Africa for another six months. I did this for a very long time.
“Everyone just kept on stamping me through. Then I was coming out of Zimbabwe, and it was very slow at the border for some reason. The official starts paging through and he says ‘What are you doing? You’ve been here way too long. You can’t keep going tic, tic, tic, tic, tic, tic. You have to go home. Now!’
“My ticket was expired long years ago. When I left though, I went to the airport. That’s how you got to do it. You have to leave through the airport because it’s very public. ‘You have a fine to pay. If you come back you have a fine of 1,000 South African rand to pay.’ If I had done it through a border post they would have beaten me silly, probably.”
“For a while after I came back I was still living over there in my head. All of my comparisons were to South Africa. I also responded to situations differently than someone from Akron or America might have reacted.
“The thing I found was that everybody is pretty much the same. The way we think South Africans think is not true. The way we think the world thinks about us is not really true. Most people don’t care. They’re all too busy living their own lives.
“They do have their cliches about us, that everywhere in America it looks like New York. They don’t have any idea of what Highland Square is or Idaho, or what Des Moines looks like. We could be in a coffee shop in South Africa right now, it’s not that different. That’s what’s fascinating about it, people are pretty much the same kinds of people everywhere. We are pretty universal.”
I asked him, after all the traveling he has done, and all the places he has been, why did he choose to come back home to Akron?
“I connected with a friend who I went to high school with and we got together, started dating and going out, and one thing led to another and we got married and had our beautiful son.”
He smiles broadly, letting his brow unfurl. The thought of his family relaxes his face and he looks young again.
Art and influence
I ask him if his time in Africa influenced his work. He slips down into his chair, takes a sip of his cold coffee, and then pushes it away. It’s almost as if he’s pushing my question aside with it.
“There is an international flavor in the work. It’s not specific to one place. It’s a combination of a lot of different aesthetic elements, fashion but it’s not specifically fashion. It’s a kind of commentary on painting. I am very influenced by 60s, 70s expressionism to the point where the painting works very well. It’s constructed well, and there are parts where it’s breaking down. It’s not about completely making it a well-constructed painting but also about letting it become almost a failure at some points and then snatching it back so that it’s constantly in flux.
“There is kind of a plan from beginning to end and you can have a few places along the way where you can change the plan, but basically all the elements are there. For me painting is about the process as well. There are all these things that are happening while you’re painting, while you’re working. That should go into it.
“I like the idea that once layers are put down and there is color there, then I start to see other ideas, other relationships. I go back over it or I can destroy an area and recreate it, keep redesigning it; pushing it pulling it around. None of them are actually ever really finished. It’s not about looking at it and saying, ‘Oh, I could have tweaked that corner a little more.’ It’s not about tightening, it’s about re-envisioning it.
“I am never putting on the illusion or the idea that it’s always ending up exactly as it’s supposed to be. I am not painting things for the purpose of recreating photographic representations because it’s not interesting to me. It’s about what the paint can do and how it can find these relationships in there, the story part. I still have to have some chops in there. There are some areas that are really clean, with perfect lines, or the structure of a form is in there. It’s the formal, classic way of working. It’s not full abstraction.
“I am not really interested in the body or painting it so I don’t have nudes or full open figures. It’s more or less something to drape everything else on, so it could be a bird, but…” He waves the words away and picks up his coffee.
“One of the most important things to establish is that no matter what you do, or how you do it, or how good or bad it is, it should always be associated with you. You put a lineup of a hundred pieces of work, people should be able to say ‘We know who it is. We know who it belongs to.’”
We both check the time. Both of us have someplace else to be tonight. I ask him my last question: Are you home for good?
“I have a child to raise. I am a stay at home dad and my wife works full time. I am not going to do any major traveling. The idea of stepping outside of the country is…” He laughs, leaving the sentence unfinished.
South Africa is far away from him now. There are some art projects that he has to get back home to, and both of us are out of coffee. He reaches for his phone and scans it. The place is beginning to fill with the after-work crowd. It’s too loud now to for us to speak comfortably. It’s time to go.
We get up and walk to the door. We have to wait and let a tall woman with blue and pink cat ears on her head and a pink collar around her neck pass. He smiles as we exit and I wonder if she will somehow influence a future project of his.