JEFF DONOVAN: THREE DECADES/TWENTY YEARS By Wim Roefs
Jeff Donovan has packed a good 20 years of art production into the three decades-plus that have passed since completing what he considers his first successful painting, Reclining Figure, c. 1977-78. That’s not to say that he didn’t do anything at all for a decade, but between the mid-1980s and ’90s, he wasn’t producing much art. “I wouldn’t even say that I drew in my sketchbook,” Donovan says. “I just doodled a little.” His 1984 painting The Yawn was, in hindsight, a prelude to a decade of hibernation as an artist. He still managed the first version of Overhead, a man looking toward the sky, but went dormant after that.
Still, one of the hibernation-era doodles in 1994 became the original, oil pastel version of Two Drunk Popes, the model for Donovan’s popular, hand-colored 1999 woodcut of which he had to print number 31/30 to have one himself. Another doodle became the 1994 painting The Friar With The Plywood Collar Goes Boating, which subsequently, in 2005, became one of Donovan’s first ceramic sculptures. Yet more doodles turned into Lonesome Dave Surveys The Prairie and Dream Boating, which was the model for the 2008 ceramic sculpture Dream Boater, now in the collection of the Columbia Museum of Art. “Well, I had a backlog of ideas. Then it was just a matter of getting back to it, get the feel back, and that took a little time.”
All this suggests a few things about Donovan. Obviously, he cooks up funny titles. Furthermore, Donovan likes to revisit themes, imagery and concepts, exploring their possibilities in several ways and media. It’s also clear he has had to scale some hurdles to get a career going as an artist. Equally clear, though, is that life as an artist seemed inevitable; taking time to get from A to B apparently didn’t disturb Donovan, which is true for how he creates art, too – patiently, deliberately, experimentally. “I always knew I would get back to it – it was a natural thing, inevitable maybe.”
Donovan was born in Milford, Delaware. His father was in the Air Force, and from age two until college, young Jeffrey lived all over the place. First there were Florida, Washington state and Libya, in North Africa. Then followed Summerville, S.C., near Charleston, during fourth and half of fifth grade. Manila, in the Philippines, was up next until the end of sixth grade, after which came Mascoutah, Illinois, for middle school and the first year of high school. In 1975, Donovan completed high school in Dover, Delaware.
He went off to the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., and lasted two years. The first year emphasized discipline and consisted of rigorous training in the basics of drawing, which Donovan enjoyed. The second year was all about students doing whatever they felt like, he says, without direction or structure. That, Donovan thought, was a waste of time and, in any case, something for which he didn’t need to be in school. “That second year was also when I figured out that they were training us to be teachers, which I wasn’t interested in.”
He decided to hang out for a while in Columbia, S.C., the hometown of two of his fellow Ringling students, which was about half way between Florida and Delaware. After a few months, his meager savings from a restaurant job in Florida ran out, and Donovan began working with one of his former Ringling mates as a general contractor, painting houses, building cabinets, hanging drywall, tiling kitchens and so forth. That was in 1978.
At the same time, he began painting. Some of his early works, including that first one, had hints of Francis Bacon. The paintings consisted of floating figures propped against a wall, or between two walls, in vague, simplified spaces that were often broken into just two planes. “After I decided to give up on art school and just more or less teach myself, one of the first contemporary painters whose work I really responded to was Francis Bacon. Before, I looked at the old masters – Vermeer and all of that. I couldn’t paint like Bacon myself, but it was a big influence. It got me away from the fuzziness, the need to apply dozens and dozens of glazes to get the perfect surface. Instead it got me thinking more about using the medium more directly onto the surface and letting it stand on its own merit. Idiot Talk Show Host and John, John The Idiot Cowboy resulted from that. They didn’t have a lot of surface. The colors were pretty much laid on directly.”
Though he applied Bacon’s lessons, these paintings looked less like Bacon than the slightly earlier floating figures. Rather than Bacon’s example, Donovan’s own thumbnail ballpoint-pen doodles were their source. “As much as I admired Bacon, I never saw any drawing by him. I was working off my own drawings.” The title for the cowboy painting came from a 1975 song by The Kinks, Jack The Idiot Dunce. “Who’s the fool with the cross-eyed stare, the turned up nose and moronic glare?” That was “Jack, Jack, the Idiot Dunce,” The Kinks sang, but Jack eventually turned out to be a pretty cool dancer, ending up getting the girls. “I particularly liked that song from the Schoolboys in Disgrace album,” Donovan says. “So when I did that doodle, a guy standing against the bar, I just called it John, John the Idiot Cowboy.”
An earlier influence had been Edvard Munch. Donovan hadn’t yet completed The Yawn, a figure with a gaping mouth, when during a Christmas trip home he saw a Munch exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. “I was totally blown away by it. I kind of started off, like a lot of younger artists, being very enamored with old masters. I did get from my art school that academic foundation in drawing, especially the figure. Then you can’t help but notice that there’s a lot of modern and contemporary art happening. You can’t like it all, and I have always tended toward the more painterly, the more expressive, the more figurative work – art from the Impressionists onward. Max Beckman, James Ensor, all the German Expressionists. Stuff with a zing or a pop or a bang to it. And mostly figurative. I kind of was working between those influences and trying to merge that strong drawing with some sort of interesting application of the paint, something that is visually dynamic and stimulating, beyond just color to fill in between the lines – something that imparts some kind of energy and life to the surface. James Ensor has always been high on my list of people who are too often overlooked for quality and sheer audacity and originality.”
Always in tune with the technical and crafts aspect of making art, Donovan was drawn most to artists grounded in academic traditions. “I personally respect the work more knowing that they had some kind of foundation or basis, that they did what they did quite intentionally, not because they couldn’t do anything else.”
Edgar Degas was the shining example. “He tried to get into the Salon. His example was Ingres. But he evolved and moved further and further away to what I think are his defining works, these pastels of women bathing. There’s nothing academic about them. The surfaces are amazing, but they don't owe anything to the French academy. But the starting point did. And Monet and Manet – they all started there, the academy was their jumping off point.”
Donovan stayed in Columbia, where he still lives and works. In 1982, he was included in the South Carolina Arts Commission Juried Exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art, where a prominent Columbia collector of South Carolina art, the late Mark Coplan, bought Donovan’s Figure In A Pool for $100. Donovan’s inclusion in a Columbia Artists Guild exhibition at the University of South Carolina that same year resulted in a BlueCross BlueShield purchase award. In 1983, he again was selected for the State Arts Commission show at the Columbia Museum.
But by 1984, Donovan pretty much had stopped painting. That year, his daughter, Rose, was born, after Donovan had married in 1983. He divorced in 1986. Not long after that, he was struck with a relatively moderate but lingering case of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that caused paralysis in his face. Well before he had recovered, his financial situation forced him to go back to work.
Donovan continued to work as a general contractor until around 1990. About that time, he helped furniture maker Clark Ellefson renovate his workshop in Columbia’s then mostly abandoned downtown Vista warehouse district. Ellefson was among the pioneers in the now thriving art and retail hub, where Donovan has a studio at Vista Studios. The renovation job led to Donovan doing set work for video productions, hooking up with set builder Carl Copeland in 1992.
“I always had intentions to get back to art but I was doing other things that required time,” Donovan says. In 1988, he had become interested in Buddhism, becoming a Buddhist in 1991. The following year, Donovan spent three summer months at a Buddhist retreat in Colorado. After his return to Columbia, he took full custody of Rose, becoming a single parent. His increased responsibilities meant he had to stick with his work as a set designer rather than make art. Still, the nature of the job allowed Donovan to get back to painting. “There were down times, when we didn’t have projects lined up for weeks at a time, and during those weeks, I dragged out art materials and dusted them off. That was in 1994. I realized that, hey, I can set up an easel in our workshop and get back to it while we were waiting for the next job to roll through the door.”
Putting a decade worth of doodles to good use, Donovan created several paintings on the back of linoleum, remnant scraps from a set design job. He glued the linoleum to plywood, primed it with acrylic house paint and went at it. “It turned out to be a really nice surface to work on. But it took a while to warm up again. I had gotten really rusty. It took a few weeks, maybe a month, to get used again to moving the paint around and making it do what I wanted.”
His return to painting was not some big celebratory event, Donovan says, but rather a natural development. “The best way I can explain it is to compare it with the sun coming from behind a cloud. Like the sun always being there, my return to making art was always there. The cloud simply had to move away first before it all became visible again.”
But as set-building jobs picked up, his painting time decreased. When it looked like Copeland was going to move his shop out of the city, Donovan was facing increased driving time, which was especially inconvenient because he had to pick up his daughter from school in the afternoons. Then a big project in 1996 gave him financial reserves, and Donovan took off time from work to paint. In 1997, he rented his first real studio, as opposed to using a spare room in the house. The studio was at 701 Whaley Street in Columbia, a gallery and studio complex that closed a few years later but after restoration in 2008 became the home of 701 Center for Contemporary Art. For more than a year, Donovan was a full-time studio artist, also taking on odd portrait commissions. From late 1998 until mid-1999, he worked as a framer at City Art Gallery in Columbia. Then he took his current job at ReNewell Fine Art Conservation in Columbia. For a few years, he showed his work at City Art and Morris Gallery, which was linked to ReNewell.
To his surprise, having a regular job did wonders for Donovan’s productivity as an artist. “That was the shock of my life. I had bought into this myth that being self employed you could set your own schedule, but the reality is that you end up working more, because so much has to be done, and you are the only person who can do it.” The irregularity of his schedule as a free lancer, with unexpected jobs and rush jobs, also made it hard to plan. “So when I got this regular job, which I had been avoiding for 15 years, it occurred to me that I knew exactly when my job started and ended, and that all the time before and after that was my time. That was actually a revelation.”
Donovan’s career as an artist kicked into a higher gear, both in terms of producing art and exhibiting. In 1998, he had joined the new Columbia artist group Osmosis, which between 1998 and 2002 traveled three exhibitions to seven venues in North and South Carolina. Donovan produced some memorable artworks for some Osmosis exhibitions, including Two Drunk Popes for a woodcut exhibition as well as Earthtone and a second version of Overhead for an exhibition of triptychs. In 1999, he participated in an exhibition of artists with studios at Gallery 701 at 701 Whaley Street in Columbia. In 2001 he was included in a juried exhibition at the Spartanburg County (S.C.) Museum of Art. A 2003 group show in Columbia was followed by an international group show of figurative work at the Jackson Gallery in Aiken, S.C. That year, Donovan also had his first solo exhibition, Anatomically Incorrect, at Fresh Pastabilities, a Columbia restaurant.
In 2004, Donovan was invited to an exhibition of Columbia artists at Columbia College and to South Carolina Birds: A Fine Art Exhibition, a large exhibition that opened in Sumter, S.C., and traveled to three other venues in the state. He also was among the four artists in the first exhibition of if ART, International Fine Art Services, at the home of the company’s owner. A second such exhibition including Donovan followed the next year, when he also had a solo exhibition at the University of South Carolina Aiken. In 2006, Donovan rented his current studio at Vista Studios, after having worked at home most of the decade. That same year, he joined Columbia’s if ART Gallery when the gallery opened in November.
As his art production took off, so did Donovan’s habitual experimentation with materials and supports in search of interesting surfaces. In the past decade, he has worked on wood, canvas, paper, paper mounted on canvas, canvas mounted on wood and paper mounted on canvas mounted on wood. He has used oil, oil sticks, oil pastels, acrylics, charcoal, gouache and casein, often mixing media.
Donovan developed a unique, recognizable style and approach to his subject matter, which tends to be the figure. His figures and the context they find themselves in are characterized by a wicked combination of wackiness and humor, solitude and lonesomeness, naturalist rendering and physiological incorrectness, cartoon-like and pensive qualities, expressiveness and disconnectedness, activity and stillness. The air of Surrealism or Magic-Realism his paintings emit is as casual as the figures’ refusal to make eye contact with the viewer. And with Donovan’s figures it’s often hard to tell whether they are deeply depressed or perfectly at peace with themselves and the world.
Three Monks hang out, cool-dude-like, having a smoke. The Kneeling Woman is defined as much by her elongated neck bowing forward with her hair hanging down than by the fact that she’s on one knee. The guy in Hanging Out might just as easily be resting contentedly after a swim or wondering in desperation what to do with the rest of his life. In Striped Ties Are In, a big foot runs into a thin ankle/neck that supports a small human head; a yellow tie with red stripes hangs around the ankle/neck.
“My methodology dictates a somewhat inventive anatomy,” Donovan says, “making the figures less representational and more reflective of psychological and emotional states of being. My intent is for the final image to first register with the viewer on an emotional and intuitive level before engaging them intellectually.” What his figures’ “psychological and emotional states” might be remains unanswered. “I’ll let you know when I come up with something,” he says.
Donovan mostly speaks of his art on a technical and formal level rather than in terms of content. “My images,” he says, “evolve from a process of staining a surface with a mottled tone in which suggestions of form and space are discerned. Inevitably, the forms revealed are figures, owing to a prejudice on my part for that particular subject. Once the subject and the broad compositional framework have been determined, my concerns are largely with formal elements – movement, balance, color and tonal harmony or dissonance, texture, etcetera.”
In 2004, Donovan added ceramics to his repertoire. He took classes with Peter Lenzo at Southern Pottery in Columbia and made his debut as a ceramicist at the invitational at Columbia College, selling his first sculpture. The next year, he studied for two months with Christina Cordova at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, where in 2006 he was included in a group exhibition. His ceramic sculptures were part of the if ART exhibitions Humans, in 2006, and Construction Crew III, in 2007, both at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios in Columbia. In 2009, the Columbia Museum of Art purchased Dream Boater.
Clay had been on Donovan’s mind for decades as a material he thought he could work with. “But I never seemed to have time to get into it,” he says. “For many years I thought, anyway, that painting was something I hadn’t gotten into fully, and painting was my first choice. Once I finally had figured out what I could do with painting, I thought I was ready to try something completely different.”
Or, rather, something somewhat different. As a painter and draftsman, Donovan already was thinking three-dimensionally as he worked two-dimensionally, considering the forms on the surface as volumes in space. And interest in surface texture and color to him provides a crucial common ground between painting and ceramics. “The difference is that with a painting, you build a form as you are treating the surface. With sculpture, you first create the form, which then becomes the canvas for the treatment of surface.”
Donovan’s clay works involve the same psychologically charged but ambiguous figures with dubious physiological qualities that feature in his paintings. Rendering them in clay doesn’t decrease the sense of humor or despair, resilience or resignation, emotional bliss or turbulence or contemplation or mental absence they invoke. In fact, his clay pieces often involve the same figures as in his paintings. The figures in Thread Counting, Reflection In A Toaster and several other sculptures inhabited Donovan’s paintings and drawings well before he created them in clay. Other clay figures, like his heads with architectural structures on top, are new additions to his cast of characters.
Working in 3-D actually has reinforced how Donovan works in flat space, painting, though he had hoped otherwise. “It’s possible that in the future I might consider the painting surface more as an opportunity for pure color as opposed to the strong form aspect – that is, to it being so sculptural – and that I might just discard form and make it all about color and texture. When I look at other artists’ work, abstract, non-figurative, non-objective paintings are more interesting to me than figurative work.”
At age 52, with a job, a studio and gallery representation, Donovan still doesn’t think his mode of production is fully set. “The way I see my situation at this point is that I feel that I have gone beyond the awkward teenage years but that it’s not yet clear to me what the next stage is going to be. I feel there is a sense of ripeness, that it’s not going to decline and rot from here on, but that there will be more, even though I am not sure yet what that will be.”