By Gussie Fauntleroy
Jerry Jordan’s first—and lasting—impressions of Taos and the surrounding northern New Mexico landscape came, almost literally, through the eyes of the early Taos painters.
It was May 1963. Jordan was 19, and his father was following the advice of Jerry’s art teacher in Brownfield, TX, near the family farm where Jordan grew up. “If that boy wants to paint, take him to Taos,” the teacher declared. “I hadn’t even heard of Taos,” admits Jordan.
But one thing he had known since at least age 16: He passionately wanted, and seriously intended, to become a painter. So the family traveled to Taos, with Jordan’s girlfriend, Marilyn, along for the adventure. (She soon became his wife and has been for 40-some years and counting.)
Approaching Taos in the family car, with his window rolled down, the young man breathed in the spicy-woodsy scent of piñon smoke that permeated the valley from chimneys in ancient-looking adobe houses. At the Kachina Lodge near the center of town, where the family stayed, Jordan was immediately drawn to the paintings in the lobby, dining room, and hallways. Most were by early 20th-century Taos painters affiliated with the Taos Society of Artists.
Among the Society’s renowned members were Joseph H. Sharp, Bert G. Phillips, E. Irving Couse, Oscar Berninghaus, E.L. Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, and Walter Ufer. Today, Jordan notes with bemusement and pride, the Taos Art Museum owns some of his own art, along with works by the Taos masters who inspired him.
“My first view of Taos was through those paintings,” he relates. “So when I looked at the landscape, I interpreted it as those early painters had seen it.” Even now, he adds, “I drive around and see scenes that they must have seen. I see clouds and think, ‘That’s how Hennings would have done cloud shapes.’ I find myself viewing a scene through glasses they would have worn. Then I ask myself, ‘How would I render it?’”
Most often, Jordan’s vividly expressive paintings are rendered in thickly textured impasto produced by layers of paint. He pushes color, compresses space, and plays with shadow, light, and shape. A prolific artist, he happily works seven days a week. After years of alternating between Brownfield and Taos—his most recent period in Texas graced him with the last years of his parents’ lives—he is delighted to be settled once again in Taos.
Sitting on his studio’s front porch, Jordan gazes out over cottonwoods, fruit trees, and the 200-year-old adobe home he and Marilyn enjoy on two acres at the southern edge of Taos. To the northeast are views of Taos Mountain, rising above its neighboring southern Rocky Mountain peaks.
The 65-year-old artist is a born storyteller, complete with a soft West Texas drawl and dry, self-deprecating wit. He likes to ascribe his creative success to “two percent talent and 98 percent determination.” Many, including his legions of collectors, might beg to differ, bumping up the talent side of the equation considerably. But no one who hears his story will question his determination.
Growing up on a farm, in a family of Pentecostal churchgoers, Jordan was raised with music and church singing but had little exposure to fine art. Still, something nudged him in that direction, beginning with his first painting, a paint-by-numbers picture his grandmother pronounced “the prettiest thing!”
With warm feelings from his grandmother’s praise and a few colors left from the paint-by-numbers kit, young Jerry produced his first original small paintings. One, of an apple tree and a deer, elicited from his father a less positive critique: “That’s either the smallest apple tree or the biggest deer I ever saw!” The artist smiles. His father’s teasing—offset later by immeasurable support and encouragement—did not dissuade him. He was on his way.
His next big step, at 16, was to stumble upon the studio of a professional painter in Paris, TX. W.R. Thrasher’s studio happened to be next to a park where the Jordans were holding a family gathering. Wandering in through the studio’s open door, the teenager was awestruck, overwhelmed, and exhilarated by what he saw: almost three dozen paintings lined up against the walls, with all types of subjects, from still life to landscape.
“I was amazed at that. I loved the smell of the oil paints, and I was naïve and innocent enough to think I could do it,” Jordan remembers. He was also naïve enough to assume his inborn talent and quick learning skills would propel him into a painting career if only Thrasher would grant him a couple of weeks as a mentor. Thrasher said no.
Back home in Brownfield, Jordan sent the artist a letter, asking again for two weeks of his time. The letter went unanswered, as did three more. With the fourth letter Jordan sent a small artwork he had done, a copy of a painting by Robert Wood. The teenager was positive Thrasher would change his mind once he saw Jordan’s talent.
He got no reply. Finally—a year after his first request—having given Thrasher the benefit of perhaps not receiving one or more of the letters and being a busy man, Jordan lost patience and sent a letter he now sees as bordering on rude. He accused Thrasher of being impolite by not acknowledging his letters and demanded the elder artist at least return his painting. Thrasher immediately wrote back, agreeing to teach the boy for a couple of weeks.
“I just wore him down,” Jordan says. “Years later he told me, ‘You had more audacity than any kid I ever met!’” Jordan also now understands that Thrasher’s teaching style, while exposing him to important skills, had one major flaw. Rather than explaining how to paint something better, Thrasher would simply fix the error himself. “He’d take a brush and say, ‘This is the way it goes.’ By the time the painting was done, it looked darn good,” Jordan laughs. “I thought it was my own. I thought, my goodness, I sure learned fast!”
Neighbors and business owners in Brownfield were impressed as well. After a second summer stint with Thrasher, Jordan came home and sold all his paintings. He earned $4,000, a fortune for a small-town teenager in 1962. But he also had to re-learn much of what he thought he knew about painting, thus embarking on a lifetime of self-improvement that continues today.
After his early success, Jordan’s confidence was seriously deflated a few years later when a curator in Lubbock panned his work because his subject matter “bounced all over,” just as his mentor’s had. The artist, overreacting, locked his studio door without stepping foot inside. He sold his home, studio, and everything in them and moved to Chattanooga, TN, abandoning painting for almost 10 years.
During that time, Jordan and his brother—soon joined by their wives—carved out a successful contemporary gospel/soft country music niche as The Jordans. They performed the Bible belt church circuit, the Grand Ole Opry, and Madison Square Garden. They recorded albums, the most famous of which was a humorous monologue called Phone Call From God. The record sold a quarter-million copies in its first four weeks on the MCA label and earned Jordan the Country Music Comic of the Year Award in 1976. “You can still find Phone Call From God at truck stops,” he adds.
But life on the road was wearying, and by 1978 Jordan realized what he really wanted to do was paint. Since then, he has studied with acclaimed Taos artists Rod Goebel and Ray Vinella and delved into the works of the early Taos painters. His deep familiarity with Old Taos, infusing his paintings with a sense of authenticity and quiet strength, comes from having lived there, off and on, since 1965.
In those early days, Jordan recalls, the elder Taos Pueblo men were wrapped in blankets as they walked around the old part of town. It became an iconic image in the artist’s mind, and in his art. Returning to Taos in the mid-1980s after his musical interlude and hoping to re-create this image, he asked longtime Taos Pueblo friend Tony Reyna to introduce him to elders who could serve as models.
Jordan became accepted as a “good white boy” and spent six weeks living with the family of Tony’s uncle, Teles “Good Morning” Reyna, who adopted him as a son. He still has thousands of photographs of Pueblo friends wrapped in blankets or on horseback, silently following mountain trails. Combined with a scarcely changed landscape of aspen and fir forests, sage-covered expanses, and Taos Pueblo itself, these images provide a compelling window into an earlier time.
“I measure myself against the old Taos painters, and I have a constant drive to do better,” Jordan observes. “When I finish a painting, I say, ‘Well, that was almost there, but not quite.’ And each time, they do get better. Out of four paintings, two will be better at least in some way.”
Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Parsons Gallery of the West, Taos, NM.
Two-artist show with sculptor Brent Lawrence, Manitou Galleries, May 1-15.
Featured in May 2009