In the middle of his shift, as he pushes a trash can down a crowded hallway in the Indiana Memorial Union, the artist stops in front of a painting on the wall. The electric colors beg to explode outside the frame.
“I wish I could’ve added a little more gray here,” Joel Washington says, his hand hovering above the canvas.
The acrylic painting shows jazz legend Wes Montgomery thumb-strumming his hollow back electric guitar. Washington painted it 15 years ago. He often paints portraits of famous musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, the Beatles and Billie Holiday.
“When I look at this,” he says, examining his Montgomery portrait, “I see ways I could add more color to it. But it’s already paid for, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
Students hurry past, but they don’t notice Washington in his uniform. He doesn’t blame them. After all, he has other things to do as well. His job requires him to always keep it moving. He has bathrooms to clean, floors to mop, glass windows to spray.
“It’s like I got my own reality show with all these cameras around me,” Washington says. “There’s security everywhere. I got to get back to work.”
He takes one last glance at his painting, then turns around and pushes the trash can toward another hallway.
Washington lives in two worlds. One where his art of musicians, artists, clowns, movie stars and IU faculty fill the city he’s called home for years, and one where he works to pay the bills. Somewhere in between those two jobs lies the dream to make art a full time job, showcasing his psychedelic acrylic paintings to the world.
Like many artists, he is waiting for his big break — the moment when his art earns him a living. The moment when he can finally break away. At 54 years old, he believes it’ll come along, someday.
“I’m going to continue networking and wait for someone to be interested, but in the meantime, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing,” Washington says.
So, once again — just like every weekday — Washington rises at 3:45 a.m. After he gets ready, he locks his apartment door and carefully treads down a flight of stairs. He drags himself into the pitch dark, serene morning for the 25-minute hike to the IMU.
As soon as Washington clocks in at 5 a.m., he begins to prepare the IMU for the day’s inhabitants.
He becomes the shy greeter, the sweeper, the cleaner and the observer once he’s on the clock, but the art never leaves his mind.
Washington checks his assignments for the day, then pulls a bright yellow Kaivac cleaning machine into an elevator and heads upstairs to fill it with water from the supply closet.
He opens the gate to the billiards area, disappearing into a dark abyss. As soon as he turns on the lights, the room brightens and Washington appears in full color.
A supervisor walks past to make sure he is on task.
“You got to do what you got to do to earn that dollar,” Washington says.
Washington puts a neon yellow ”Closed for Cleaning” sign on the door of the men’s restroom.
He is alone in his territory. He has to make sure everything in his designated hallway — the computer lab, the billiards and the ATM area — are ready for students.
However, things are different when he’s at home.
When he’s home, he’s usually painting. And when he’s painting, he’s usually alone. And when he’s alone, it’s always quiet.
Washington put in a DVD and plopped down on his couch.
In sepia color, the words “Wizard of Oz” appeared on the television screen.
He grabbed a tube of Cadmium yellow paint — one of 14 paint tubes on the table — and squeezed out the last tiny blob onto his palette, a white paper plate.
Washington was adding the finishing touches to a painting of jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie blowing his trumpet, layering more color and depth onto the late trumpet player’s face and body.
The whole piece only took him a few days. He painted commission pieces for other people the past few weeks. Dizzy was for himself.
Painting is his therapy. It’s how he meditates and reflects.
He whirled a black paintbrush in murky green water, tapped it on the side of the cup, and dabbed the tip of the brush into the bright yellow paint.
He shaded in the root of Dizzy’s long, narrow nose. He squinted, leaning his head forward or to the side as he thought of what to tackle next.
“When I was growing up I used to look at movies, fantasies,” Washington said. “It kept me away from the everyday stuff.”
Washington grew up in Haughville, Ind., a low-income neighborhood 10 miles outside of Indianapolis.
His first dream was to be a Disney animator. As a child, he watched George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine, an animated movie based on music from the Beatles.
He started drawing sketches, cartoons. His apartment houses numerous production sales, most notably from the Fat Albert cartoons.
By the time he was a teenage, he knew he wanted to be a full-time painter.
“I use to draw all over the walls as a kid back then,” Washington said.
His older sister Marsha remembers how imaginative he was.
“He would draw caricatures of people, but if it was on my end of the stick, I didn’t think it was funny at all,” she chuckled.
Washington moved to Bloomington when he was 15, graduated from Harmony School and spent a year at Ivy Tech. For years, he has designed and sold skateboard decals locally.
He loves human expression, whether it’s classic movies like “Casablanca,” music by Billie Holiday or pop art by Andy Warhol and Peter Max.
Pop culture still influences Washington’s work. His 10-piece Frank Zappa series hangs in Laughing Planet Cafe. He has James Dean in the Village Deli, and Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins in the African American Arts Institute.
The Indiana State Museum purchased his Jazz Man piece in 2007. The piece was featured along with three of his other art works in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, for three years.
In 2010, he had a 50th birthday arts show in the City Hall Atrium. That same year, he put his Michael Jackson commemorative portrait in the hands of famed producer Quincy Jones. In 2012, he presented his David Baker to the jazz composer and IU music professor.
From January 21 to October 14, 2012, the Indiana State Museum featured 24 African American contemporary artists from Indiana in an exhibit titled Represent.
One of the paintings featured was a 6-foot scene of the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown getting helped up by one of his background performers after falling to his knees during one of his famous cape routines.
Kisha Tandy, the assistant curator for History and Culture at the museum, organized the exhibit.
Seeing Washington’s art come alive, so large and bold, is what makes people connect to his work, Tandy said.
“When I saw it, I got it,” Tandy said. “Even though I never saw him live, I saw him perform on television. Joel captured the essence of James Brown in the
painting. He tells the story of music history through his artwork.”
Back at home, Washington sets his painting aside and thinks about the Tin Man, the character he most closely resembles in the “Wizard of Oz.”
“He was searching for a heart, and he already had one,” Washington said. “I always try to be compassionate. There are things I search for that I already had. What’s important for me is to be humble. I don’t have an ego, I just want to be as kind to people as I can.”
“You can’t be ashamed of what God gave you,” he said.
In his father’s house in Indianapolis, there are old school report cards.
“At the top of all of them, it says ‘Joel is a great artist, but we wish he would focus on his other school work,’” Washington said.
Washington was born in February 1960 in Indianapolis. He grew up in Haughville with an older sister, a younger sister and a younger brother.
Marsha Washington, his older sister by a year, said she still believes Joel will make it as a full-time artist.
“I have great faith in God that a perfect window or opportunity will open with his work,” she said.
Washington says he faintly remembers his mother and father divorcing at a young age. He recalls his mother and his siblings moving up to Bloomington while he lived with his father in Indianapolis.
When he was 15, he moved to Bloomington to live with his mother. He would call Bloomington home for the next 39 years.
As a young man in Bloomington, he joined a b-boy group and started his “Lab Ratical” cartoon skateboard designs around the skate parks in Bloomington.
Washington pulled out photos of himself as a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s.
His pictures show a young, black man in ‘80s fitted, hip garb breakdancing and skating with his friends.
In one of them, he’s breakdancing in T.I.S. Bookstore, where he used to work.
He was a member of a multicultural skateboarding group and was featured in a national skateboard magazine.
In one particular picture, he’s skateboarding near a basketball court, which used to be near the Bloomington Hospital.
Washington says he has about 300 skateboards in his possession.
He designs a skateboard line and sells them to skateboard shops in Bloomington like Rhett Skateboarding.
Some of his skateboards have turned into works of art. Some are vintage. Some he rides.
Washington has been riding since he arrived in Bloomington. He started working at the Union in the ‘80s, first as a food service worker and then as a custodian.
He’s been there for almost 30 years. He’s always ready to move on, to do more and do better art shows.
He said his mom got him started on his first, and what he considers his best, art show.
“What I miss about her is that she was always encouraging me with my art,” Washington said. “She always pushed us to go for whatever we believed in. She was the one who told me that I would be where I am now.”
Washington still struggles with balancing his two worlds. Pygmalion’s Art Supply Sales Clerk Ben Dines said the goal for any artist is to work on the craft full time.
Dines, who also teaches private lessons, said Washington gets his canvas and paints from the store.
He was amazed to know that Washington was self-taught.
“That is really impressive,” Dines said. “I believe that Joel has something good going for him because it’s difficult to sell paintings.”
Washington said he plans to show his work in bigger cities.
“I mean, I enjoy doing stuff in Bloomington, but I want everybody to see my work, and I can’t do that if I’m not making that move,” Washington said. “I won’t rest until I’ve made that jump into showing people my work, whether it’s in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, L.A.”
He still wants to be able to put on a new, bigger art show. But with a heap of commissions to do, he has trouble finding the time.
“It’ll be the first show I’ve done in four years,” Washington said.
Aspirations aside, Washington doesn’t mind his job as a custodian.
Roy Robertson, the custodial director at the IMU, said Washington knows a lot of people around campus.
“For Joel, as busy as he is, all that he has to cover, I think he does a good job at trying to balance the social interaction he gets here with getting his job done and staying focused on what his tasks are,” Robertson said.
“There’s so much going on for that young man. It is a full tough job for him to do. I wouldn’t want to be as talented as that in such a public venue.”
Washington said he’s not afraid of losing time. Every year is a blessing, especially at 54.
“Don’t remind me,” Washington said, “The more you worry about it, the older you get.”
On his 54th birthday in February, Washington walked with a visitor around the IMU to look at his favorite pieces of art.
He tended to be drawn to bright, colorful pieces like his own.
“Sometimes I wonder what the artist was thinking, but for the most part I just admire them for what they are.”
At 1:30 p.m., Washington walks downstairs to the employee center and clocked out.
After work, he wants to take a nap. He’s been feeling tired.
He hasn’t been getting enough sleep, and he doesn’t know why he’s waking up an hour before his alarm goes off at 3:45 a.m.
He’s celebrating his birthday with his older sister Marsha at her house. She’s fixing him chicken and dumplings.
For the first times in a while, Washington doesn’t have anything else planned but to rest.
Editor’s Note: The reporter is not related to the artist Joel Washington.
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