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City honors artist Joel Washington's 50th birthday with 50-painting exhibit



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Joel Washington speaks about his painting, which is "a work in progress" at The Black History Art Fair Feb. 10 in the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center. Washington was the featured artist at the event. Alex Benson Buy Photos

Joel Washington is one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet — but you probably already knew that.

Washington, a local artist and Indiana Memorial Union custodian, can’t seem to go more than two steps without someone tapping him on the shoulder.

“There is always somebody I know, somewhere,” Washington said.

He has become a local celebrity. You don’t have to look far to see his 1960s-inspired “pop art” paintings and portraits. You can pass his artwork while making your daily stroll through the Union.

His works are not only featured throughout Bloomington and on IU’s campus but also in the Indiana State Museum and the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

This month, the Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District is showcasing his artwork at the City Hall Atrium in honor of his 50th birthday. A reception celebrating his birthday will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Atrium.

“The exhibit features brightly colored pieces, which is just what we need for the drab winter months,” said Miah Michaelsen, assistant economic development director for the arts for the City of Bloomington. “It’s an explosion of color. That’s what Joel’s work is.”

The exhibit, titled “The Birthday Show: 50,” showcases 50 pieces — each representing a year of his life.

Washington had a little less than a year to create more than 25 new pieces for the gallery. Washington filled the rest of the 50 spots with artwork he had previously completed.

If his recent endeavors are any indication, his next 50 years show no signs of slowing down.

Washington said he is seeking an art agent, wants to have his pieces displayed at major galleries in New York and Chicago, hopes to travel the globe and visit the various countries’ art galleries, plans to finish his film and aspires to become an illustrator for music magazines.

“I’ve always felt like my art was going to do something and go somewhere,” Washington said. “Not to be boasting or anything like that, but sometimes you just feel something. And a lot of that comes from how hard you work on it and you get to a point, personally, where you feel like there is no turning back because you have worked too hard or come too far to let anything stand in the way of it.”

Washington began working at IU in 1987 as a food service worker but switched to custodial work in 1989. He said many people do not associate his job as a janitor with his art, but his occupation has parlayed much of his success.

“As far as being an artist, it has to do with being at the right place at the right time, and this is where I personally feel I got my first break as an artist,” Washington said. “I sold my third painting here ... Being humble to what I do has always had an end result of something really good. And you know, if I wasn’t working here, doing what I do, I wouldn’t have the work in IU’s permanent gallery.”

Although Washington likes his job, he sees himself being a full-time artist in the near future.

“I’m humble to do any job that keeps a roof over my head, but at the same time art is where I see myself making a living,” Washington said. “I enjoy working here, but my artwork is my calling.”

He also said he is humbled by all the attention he receives. Just last week, while Washington was in line at a movie theater, the employee taking his ticket recognized him and said, “You’re the artist I’ve read all about.”

Several IU students have made Washington their muse for course assignments. During the fall semester, three photojournalists used Washington as the subject for their final project.

“It’s a privilege to have people that want to do something like that for me,” Washington said. “I think it’s kind of them.”

Washington said every compliment he receives means something to him and makes him happy, but he has gotten some of the greatest compliments for his Wes Montgomery portrait.

“They tell me that when they see my art, they hear music,” Washington said.

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