When James W. Jennings graduated from high school (with top honors), the headmaster of the boarding school called him a Renaissance man. At this point in his life, the 36-year-old writer, artist, educator, and founder of a nonprofit has proven that evaluation true. Mr. Jennings, who grew up partly on the Island and still visits often, is currently showing examples of his artwork at the Oak Bluffs Public Library. The exhibit is titled “VIBES/ONDES (cont.).”
“What you see is called a vibe,” says Mr. Jennings, describing his work. “It’s like electricity, an energy. Imagine a laser shooting across the room. I almost want you to see the crackle.
“There’s something invisible that connects us all,” he explains. “I want to say that we’re all one. I’m just communicating that very simple message that there’s a bond between us, and I want to make it visible.”
Mr. Jennings has made it his mission to encourage and foster other artists. Four years ago he founded a nonprofit organization called 49th Hour Workshop. “We try to create spaces for creativity,” he explains. “Being an artist, I realized that what I was missing was an environment for creativity. Once I traveled a lot, I saw how other countries supported artists. There’s a value to that that can compete with capitalism. I decided to throw my hat in the ring while I established myself as an artist.”
Although he has drawn and painted since boyhood, Mr. Jennings originally turned his hand to writing. He completed a novel when he was 17, and has since turned out a handful of others. His latest effort, “Wings of Red,” will be published in 2018.
For over a decade Mr. Jennings worked in the New York Public School system. “I did everything from coaching basketball to teaching to serving as dean of students,” says the artist. He still lives in Manhattan, although he spends a great deal of time traveling.
Now, with his nonprofit, Mr. Jennings is combining his passion for art with his background in education. “We’re working on building residencies for artists,” says Mr. Jennings. “I’m actively pursuing grant money for creative endeavors — workshops and workspaces. We want to create the most conducive environment for the creative process, and relieve the financial burden of being an artist.”
Although he’s dabbled in many things, painting is what has primarily occupied Mr. Jennings for the past few years. Earlier this year he did an artist residency in Burgundy, France, where he also exhibited the artistic output from that experience. Years ago Mr. Jennings showed his work at the former Hastings in the Alley gallery in Oak Bluffs, but in general, he likes to take his work to the streets. “I try to do guerrilla selling wherever I’m at,” he says. “When I was in Paris I went outside the Louvre and sold paintings. I like to use acrylic paint and canvases so that everyone can afford to buy art. I call it poor man’s art. I like to maintain that thoughtfulness and accessibility.”
Mr. Jennings’ history with the Island goes back four generations. “My great-grandfather purchased a lot on the Vineyard,” he says. “He and his wife pitched a tent and lived there until he could build a house. My grandmother inherited the house.”
Mr. Jennings was raised by his grandmother, Anne P. Jennings, the first African American nurse at Hartford Hospital. Last week, Ms. Jennings was honored with a plaque commemorating the home on Highland Avenue in Oak Bluffs, which is now part of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.
Currently Mr. Jennings’ aunt and godchildren live in the home, but the artist/entrepreneur spends as much time there as possible. “It’s where I go when I’m in between traveling or when I just need some R and R,” he says.
Mr. Jennings’ focus on education is something he inherited from his grandmother. “She was always heavy on education,” he says. “She made us read. She was a master storyteller. Everything came back to the more you know, the more you can do. She was like a beacon of love and education.”
For more information about the exhibit, which will be up through this weekend, contact Nate Luce at the Oak Bluffs library, 508-693-9433.