GRAND RAPIDS – Sometimes the best way to educate is to startle and disturb.
Artist Jon McDonald, a professor of Illustration and chair of the Illustration program at Ferris State University’s Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, does that and more with an exhibit of work on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
“Slavery’s Chill,” showing through Sunday, April 14, is a series of 12 large-scale paintings that tell a very difficult story in American history.
Kendall President David Rosen called McDonald’s work both disturbing and beautiful.
“Jon’s work shows the power of art to initiate difficult and important conversations, and to inspire significant positive change,” Rosen said.
For McDonald, the paintings are an expression of truth, he said. The series, which moves from African villages where people were captured and sold into slavery to eventual freedom, began as a teaching tool for his grandson.
“What I wanted to do was set the record straight for him – set the record straight on slavery and all the things it set into motion,” he said, vowing for the historical accuracy of his work. “This type of experience isn’t what you’re going to get from high school or other places you might learn about this part of our history.
“I thought that if I could create a series that deals with slavery from beginning to end, that I would be doing something unlike anything else that’s been done, and that I could do it in a way that would have much more emotional and social impact than if I were just to paint a depiction of the underground railroad and then just sit on it for 20 years,” McDonald continued. “This approach was the only one that was going to work for me.”
McDonald was born in Jackson, Miss., and moved with his family to Grand Haven, Mich., when he was 5. He contends one of the reasons his parents moved north was because he was unafraid to look white people in the eye, something unspoken yet disapproved of that had carried on from days of slavery into the artist’s early life.
“There was blatant racism in Jackson, then when I moved to Grand Haven, everyone and everything was very nice,” he said. “But the discrimination was still there, a couple layers down. It was less about color and more about who was poor and who was wealthy.
“This stuff happens to Jews and gays and women, too. It’s all born in the same place, and it will continue until we make it stop.”
McDonald said he hopes the work speaks to his students at Kendall, and that his roles as teacher and head of the department require his students to see him as a working artist as well.
“It’s essential,” McDonald said. “I feel like we grew up with a stupid generation, really. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. The younger people today don’t think the way we did. They don’t have the fear we’ve seen. These kids are the ones who really will grow to change.”
Julie Burgess, a curatorial assistant at the GRAM, said McDonald spoke to an audience of more than 140 people at an opening-night gathering last month.
“We were excited about such a positive response to someone we consider to be a local treasure,” Burgess said of McDonald. “We hope this exhibition will continue to be seen by a wide variety of museum visitors, from Grand Rapids and beyond. We think it is important for art to challenge people to think about the important issues of our past, present and future.”
McDonald painted the “Cloud of Witnesses” mural in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia on Ferris’ Big Rapids campus. The mural, painted in 2012, features 17 historical civil rights figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
The Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center in Grand Rapids