Artist commemorates jazz great through portrait



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When he isn't working as a custodian at the IMU, artist Joel Washington paints portraits and abstract pieces. Washington painted the portrait of Rahsaan Roland Kirk that hangs in the IMU next to the IU Bookstore. Rachel Meert Buy Photos

On Sunday, Dec. 4, 1977, saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk played in the Frangipani Room of the Indiana Memorial Union. Kirk, who had been blind since he was 2 years old, was famous in the jazz world for his ability to play three horns at once.

In the preview of the show — written by Clifford S. Tinder — that ran in the Indiana Daily Student the Friday before the performance, Kirk said, “When I die, I want them to play ‘The Black and Crazy Blues.’ I want to be cremated, put in a bag of pot, and I want beautiful people to smoke me and hope they got something out of it.”

Kirk had cemented that desire in the liner notes of his 1968 album “The Inflated Tear.”

Massive strokes took the musician’s body one side at a time. The first was in 1975 when the right side of his body was paralyzed.

The second occurred the Monday after his show at IU. He died in a Bloomington hospital just hours after that final performance.

Enter Joel Washington, a 55-year-old painter who has worked as a 
custodian at the IMU for 27 years.

At a holiday party in 2014, Washington spoke to IU President Michael McRobbie about commemorating Kirk with a portrait in the IMU, which Washington had finished five years earlier as a personal project. The painting, 4.5 feet by 6 feet, now hangs in the hallway of the IMU just left of an IU Bookstore window and is visible from the food court.

In fact, Washington had begun painting Kirk just a few months earlier as a personal project. He’d admired the man — Kirk was an innovator, he said, like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder.

After Kirk’s stroke, he had a nose flute custom-made so he wouldn’t need his right hand to play. He continued to tour and perform against his doctor’s orders.

“I listen to his music, but it’s like I’m more of a fan of his story than the music,” Washington said. “It’s like how can you not give tribute to someone who went out the way he came in? Just, you know, passed away doing what he enjoyed doing.”

***

There’s a method to Washington’s portraits.

Though he said he outlines his subject’s face based off a mixture of photographs and his own imagination, he said he plays the subject’s own music. When it’s time to add color, however, Washington said the music selection shifts to a more psychedelic variety with classic artists such as the Beatles, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, as well as new-wave independent artists such as Tame Impala and Lana Del Rey.

It was the Beatles’ 1968 film “Yellow Submarine” that first struck an artistic chord with the then-11-year-old Washington, who said its pop-art style is like a textbook to him now.

“I still look at it and enjoy it but also study it,” Washington said.

Although he’s painted several portraits, he said abstracts are his favorite to paint, believe it or not. Every painting requires a certain level of control or balance, he said, but abstracts are liberating and take him to a whole other place.

Even when painting a realistic portrait, Washington said he tries not to be cornered by a photo of the person. He tends to focus on the color.

Tom Walsh, professor of saxophone and department chair of jazz studies in the Jacobs School of Music, said Washington’s combination of color in the portrait is true to Kirk’s musical style.

"(Kirk) brought together a lot of different elements and feelings in the music,” Walsh said. “He also combined a very soulful approach to the music with a very joyous approach.”

***

While he might not want to go out with a brush in hand, Washington said Kirk’s death still has a message.

“I just credit the guy for who he is, like any jazz great, inspiring people to do what they do,” he said.

Kirk, among other musicians, inspires Washington in the same way. Music and art both have a “tough road,” Washington said, which often depends on being in the right place at the right time.

Washington has been in the right place at the right time on several 
occasions.

Previously, his portrait of Kirk, along with three other paintings, were requested by the U.S. Department of State to represent the U.S. at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Eric John, now Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, selected the pieces for the Art in Embassies project. They were on display in the embassy for three years.

Washington also has two pieces in the Indiana State Museum.

He came close to becoming a contributing artist for Rolling Stone magazine, and he said he plans to 
re-apply and look for 
similar ventures.

From time to time, Washington will see people stop to look at his work hanging in the IMU, which also includes a portrait of Wes Montgomery and an abstract down the hall from the 
portrait of Kirk.

He said he likes to stay humble.

“Sometimes when people look I just like to stand back and be happy about it,” he said. “It’s the greatest feeling.”

Eventually, art is something Washington would like to do full-time. For now, like Kirk, he just continues to do what he enjoys doing.

“You don’t give up,” he said. “This is something that a lot of artists go through, that a lot of musicians go through. You don’t quit ... Sometimes, yeah, it can get aggravating, but if you stop you’ll never know.”

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Joel Washington’s portrait of the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk hangs outside the IU Bookstore in the IMU. Kirk’s last performance as a saxophone player was in the Frangipani Room of the IMU on Dec. 4, 1977. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

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