Outside the Machine

 Seattle artist Jesse Edwards: a prolific troublemaker with energy to burn.

Photography by Caleb Plowman

Entering artist Jesse Edwards’ downtown Seattle apartment building, one is confronted by a series of contradictions. Although the building is neighbor to an urban rest stop where the homeless can get a quick cleanup, the only parking available is in an overpriced garage across the street. Edwards has scored a studio for which he pays only $350 dollars a month: it includes a tiny kitchenette and a top-notch view of the Space Needle.

He comes down to meet me in the lobby wearing unlaced leather boots, a red T-shirt and black jeans under a suit jacket emblazoned with a patch bearing the insignia of the Mystic Sons of Morris Graves, a brotherhood established by local artist Charles Krafft. As he opens the door to his apartment a small gray Persian kitten named Princess races to greet him. “My mom gave [the cat] to me,” says Edwards. “Thought I needed it.”

“Do you?” I ask.

“No,” he replies. Then after a pause, mumbles, “Fucking annoying,” while bending down to ruffle the fur behind the purring kitten’s neck.

At thirty-one, Edwards is nothing if not paradoxical: his Web site features technically proficient, sensitively rendered images of Discovery Park and Green Lake alongside still lifes of crack pipes and crystal meth — all of it in a style reminiscent of Impressionism. At the Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery, Edwards is shown with a long list of Northwest luminaries that includes Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. But on the street he keeps company with a different set: skateboarders and graffiti artists.

To say that Edwards is lively is a little like saying water is wet. Constantly in motion, with darting eyes and clutching a sketchbook, Edwards gives the impression that he’d rather be somewhere else: wherever he can get back to the business of painting. Greg Lundgren, independent curator and owner of the Hideout, says, “Jesse doesn’t socialize like other people. He doesn’t work like other people. He’ll stop in for a minute to chat over a glass of water and then want to get back to painting. There could be a nuclear holocaust and he’d still be painting.”

Edwards’ apartment is an exercise in emptiness. The belongings on view are limited to a computer stand, a bench, an easel supporting a work in progress and a scratch pad for the cat. Graffiti appears in unlikely places: on a bottle of Windex and the coffeemaker. The cabinet door above the oven is ajar: a baking pan lies alongside a can of spray paint.

“I like to live with as little as possible,” he says. Within this sparse environment a large plant seems to be thriving.

Following graduation from Snohomish High School, Edwards spent a year studying the old masters in Seattle’s public libraries. A year later he was accepted into Cornish College of the Arts on a Nellie Scholarship. The future looked bright, but Edwards lasted less than a year at Cornish. He describes a curriculum that fed creative exploration at the expense of technical skill. “I guess I had higher expectations, of more of an academic setting. It was kind of ‘do whatever you want to do.’”

Which is exactly what Edwards did, speaking his mind, repeatedly and loudly, and eventually getting kicked out for bad behavior. “I knew they wouldn’t like what I had to say, but I figured I would go out with a bang.” He turned to Gage Academy (then called the Academy of Realist Art) where they turned a blind eye to his blemished past and offered him a scholarship. Edwards stayed for four years.

In spite of his formal training, Edwards credits his skill as a painter to WWL — an acronym for “World Won’t Listen” and the alias of a fellow graffiti artist. “He taught me and my brother how to tag,” says Edwards. He proudly shows off a two- by three-foot canvas featuring WWL’s tags of blocky lettering. “Graffiti is basically like calligraphy,” says Edwards. “A modern stylized calligraphy.”

Whereas a tag might consist of an artist’s name or initials executed with a single spray can, a piece (larger and more complex than a tag) done “wild style” can incorporate arrows and elaborately styled letters joined together, making the finished product almost undecipherable to the uninitiated. The most respected graffiti artists execute work quickly and brazenly without getting caught. “The hotter the spot the more respect you get,” says Edwards. “I don’t have a criminal record for violence, theft or graffiti.”

Edwards, who likes to refer to his graffiti as “installation art,” tends toward figurative representations: celebrities, self-portraits and pictures of friends. “I like pictures,” says Edwards, “you don’t have to be graffiti-literate to read pictures.” In separate works dead reality star Anna Nicole Smith and dead rapper Tupac Shakur appear with children in tender embraces — evoking something like a streetwise Mary Cassatt. When asked how his work is perceived by other graffiti artists, Edwards boasts, “They love it. They flip.”

Not everyone is a fan of Edwards’ extracurricular work on walls, including his former sponsor Pamela Belyea, executive director at Gage, who has called him a vandal whose work ranges from the mundane to the pornographic. Even his riend and mentor, local artist Charlie Krafft, scoffs at graffiti, quoting the old saying, “Fools’ names and fools’ faces often appear in public places.” Braseth, however, disagrees. And he speaks from experience — Edwards has tagged his gallery on more than one occasion. Was Braseth angry? “No,” he says, “I was impressed. They were gorgeous.”

Back at his apartment Edwards captures on canvas whatever’s in his field of vision for still life work: This might be a grouping of sunflowers arranged in a blue vase, a pair of Air Jordans or a jar of Vaseline and a dirty sock lying atop an issue of Playboy. This last is titled Masturpiece, and it’s executed with blithe sincerity.

Edwards pulls out another painting to show me. Painstakingly executed, it depicts a scene from the street: One of Edwards’ tags about to be whitewashed by a city worker. The tag, crisply outlined in canary yellow, reads “Life’s a Bitch.”

Pop culture has influenced his work both in and out of the gallery. When Edwards branched out into ceramics in 2005 he called upon ceramicist and painter Krafft to learn firing techniques. Krafft, known for his pseudo-delftware called “Disasterware” — which includes delicately painted blue and white hand grenades — invited him over. Edwards, who doesn’t own a car, showed up with skateboard in hand. “He visited maybe three times and took to it like a duck to water,” says Krafft.

Edwards began making everyday objects out of various materials: clay, crushed beer cans, a five-gallon gas can. He then used these objects as canvases for intricately detailed paintings. Edwards pulls down a ceramic model of a produce truck “tagged” with different scenes, some of them lifted from porn sites. Edwards apologizes for the content, but excitedly explains, “Trucks make great tagging material — they’re rolling billboards.”

For his 2007 show at Woodside/Braseth, featured in Ceramics Monthly, Edwards created a series of painted ceramic television sets, each featuring a different “channel.” The disaster channel, 911, shows one of the Twin Towers burning, while Odalisque (the art history channel) shows Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ famous 1814 nude gazing back at the viewer over her shoulder.

Edwards says he wants to make it to the big time. But he’s not compromising to get there — he’s doing and saying exactly as he pleases. And while his behavior may have generated some animosity as his career has progressed, he’s also fanned the flames of devotion. “I would defend him to the end,” says Lundgren. “I think the art world is taken aback by his total honesty. A lot of people have to wonder, where’s the catch? Is he being ironic? Is he trying to punk me?” He continues, “Edwards may look intimidating, but what makes him tough is his attitude about art, and the way he’s willing to talk about it.”

One morning I meet Edwards on Capitol Hill. He wants to show me a portrait done in honor of his friend Timothy Morgan Otonicar, a recently deceased graffiti artist known as Kerse. Edwards points to the sky and I see where Otonicar’s portrait, about five feet in diameter, appears on the side of a building, looming above the rooftops. We head downtown where another portrait of Otonicar can be seen below grade alongside a short note: “We miss you.” He ends our interview after an hour. He has to leave for a meeting with his mother. •

Artwork, from top: Tyrone Biggums, 2008, oil on linen, 32 x 26 inches; Candicel in sweater, 2008, oil on linen, 34 x 28 inches; Courtney Love, 2003, oil on linen, 32 x 32 inches; Crack Cocaine, 2004, oil on canvas, 24 x 16 inches.

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