James W. Jennings creates art as communication


James W. Jennings’ newest exhibition “VIBES/ONDES II (2022)” at the Oak Bluffs library will move you out of your head and shift your focus to your body. His luscious acrylic paintings do not just engage your eye, but simultaneously resonate within you. You don’t just see his art, you feel it. Although the inner experience is different for everyone, recognizing that we all have an experience speaks to our connection with one another. “When you look at my artwork, you’re looking at a form of communication,” Jennings says. “I want to communicate that invisible bond between us.”

Jennings creates his works’ impact by masterfully building fields of color and a middle section “zipping” across the composition that cuts it in half. The streak, which he also refers to as a “portal,” for him has a connotation of a missile — the weightless, breathless moment before impact. “It’s the invisible force that’s anchoring everything. We can feel diametrically opposed, but at the end of the day, our opposition makes us more related than not,” he says.

Depending on the color combinations and composition, each painting vibrates at a different frequency. The higher frequency comes when he uses striking color combinations that seem to create a sense of depth, of the composition moving back and forth in space. In contrast, the more muted pieces, with their quiet hues and matte surfaces, emphasize the two-dimensionality of the painting’s surface, and vibrate at a lower frequency.

Although Jennings titles his work, for him they are abstract, as he has left the more realistic style that he used to do behind him. He says, “I don’t paint dogs or boats. I’m creating a space.” At the same time, his titles might possibly conjure up associations. For instance, the title of “Source” might bring to mind the forming of our universe, with the bright white blobs and brilliant “zip” moving through the swirling, fiery cosmos.

The play of colors in “Girls” animate the composition, and yet you might also perhaps associate the luminescent pink with young, feminine energy. The quieter colors in “Highlands” at once create a quiet abstract space, and at the same time, connote a physical landscape of his title.

“The Highlands is my neighborhood, and it’s full of hawks and deer and green leaves,” Jennings explains.

He has ancestral connections to this part of the Island. It is where Jennings’ great-grandfather, Bear Paw, first lived, initially sleeping in a tent, and then building a tiny cottage with his wife. After he died, Jennings’ grandmother, Anne P. Jennings, who raised him, moved into the house. Jennings shared about her remarkable life and why she holds the 27th site on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. “Nana was many things to many people,” he says. “She was also a trailblazer, the first Black graduate of Hartford Hospital Nursing School in 1959, and when she passed in 2016, the African American Heritage Trail honored her with a plaque on a beautiful rock in the garden outside the house.” Jennings’ own roots began as a child, when he used to stay with her on vacations from boarding school, and then as an adult, Jennings moved here full-time 2017.

In addition to being an artist, Jennings is an essayist, novelist, entrepreneur, activist, and educator, continuing to teach at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and in a new position at School of the Future, a sixth- through 12th-grade public school in New York City. While these and his many other pursuits keep him busy, hopefully he’ll continue to find the “space” to keep creating.

“VIBES /ONDES II ( 2022)” is on view from August 16 to 31. For more background on Jennings, see the 2017 article mvtimes.com/2017/11/28/passion-with-purpose. Learn more about Jennings on LinkedIn, FaceBook, Instagram @jameswjennings, and his website, rlegacy.co/james-jennings. Requests or inquiries can be sent to 49thhour@gmail.com.