Lori Joy Peterson doesn’t just listen to jazz while painting watercolors and acrylics, she actually paints the way jazz sounds: staccatic and vibrant, with running scales of improvisation apparent through a varied, bright palette, illustrating loose lines on the curve of a trumpet or the cheek of a musician’s face. Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, even downtown Wilmington’s very own saxophonist and street busker, Glenn, are represented in her first show of 2019, “My Brilliant Colors.”
“I’ve painted Glenn numerous times,” Peterson tells. She also sketched drummer Max Roach over and over again—first digitally on her tablet before taking the final practice round to canvas. “He is an incredibly attractive guy,” she admits, “so I wanted to get him just right.”
Yet, her version of Duke Ellington comes with furrowed brows and forehead lines. Though she always noticed him as more upbeat and peppy, a weathered picture of the pianist struck her. “I saw photos of him aged,” she notes, “and I thought he was way more interesting to paint with bags under his eyes.”
Peterson wasn’t always a jazz fan, per se. In fact, as a teenager, only once did she sneak a listen to her father’s collection with a Dizzy Gillespie CD. “Dad didn’t really like people touching his stuff,” she remembers. “So he noticed when the CD was missing. I mean, I heard it all the time in the house, but I wasn’t really paying attention to it. I always liked R&B and soul music.”
Her father’s passing in 2012 had Peterson ready to toss out some of the collection … until her mother stopped her. “She made us keep everything, which at the time I wasn’t as appreciative of,” Peterson admits. “But isn’t it funny how everything turns out?”
A few years ago, Peterson was showing her work among peers in a group show. She always loved painting faces, especially old Hollywood because of its glitz and glamour, which reflected her fondness for old movies. One of her colleagues asked, “You’re a black woman, but why are you painting all white women?”
“I said, ‘What difference does it make?” Peterson recites. “I paint what I feel. My work is universal.’”
But the comment stuck with Peterson, and so she began researching African Americans for inspiration. She started with slavery, and once she reached the Jazz Age, she was enamored. “I found this old creaky jazz song from the 1920s, and it was really good,” she says. “Then I started watching Thelonious Monk on YouTube and I realized there’s some cool guys here—just the way they play, just watching the movement. Monk was very quirky. It was awkward how he danced around the stage, but it was so cute.”
Once she got to Gillespie, flashbacks of listening to her dad’s CD emerged. She asked herself: “What have I been missing?’” So she delved deeper and realized women during that period were primarily vocalists, a la Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Very few were instrumentalists. “And then I found a German pianist, Jutta Hipp,” Peterson tells of inspiration for one of her paintings, “We Don’t Know.” “Nobody liked her at the time because hard bop was in, and I guess she didn’t play that. So she got ragged and booed, but her music is good. Still, she stopped playing, and went into a depression and became an artist, painting jazz artists.”
It’s a story Peterson is familiar with, to some degree. Sixteen years ago she was overcoming an illness that sent her into a depression, and to help keep her mind focused and emotions released, Peterson’s mom suggested she take up painting. So she did. Peterson read as many books as she could, and took workshops and classes to learn techniques, principles and color theory. At first she wanted to be a realist painter, but once she completed a watercolor class with Betty Brown, it opened an entirely different world of art. “I didn’t like loose artwork at first,” she admits, “but the way Betty did it was so beautiful. She taught us, when you paint, have a mess, have fun with it—like when you were a kid!”
Brown also turned Peterson onto the book “Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain.” It’s how the teacher encouraged her class to study objects. When drawing, she would suggest they study the image first, then look away and let their brains’ interpretations guide the output, rather than stare at the objects and attempt a pure replica. Peterson uses the same practices today.
Before jazz musicians, she did plein-air painting of flowers, as well as a series of ballet dancers, and even fashion drawings that were blown up onto large curtains during 2017’s Toni Melvin Whitaker Winter Fashion Show. Lately, she’s finding herself drawn to birds. “I post all my drawings on social media,” she says, “and can gauge what people like from the amount of likes I get. People have really liked my peacocks and swans so far.” However, she isn’t moving away from jazz musicians quite yet.
Recently, she began presenting herself a new challenge: working with a palette of three colors only when she gets home from her part-time job at Hanover Regional Animal Hospital. “It started after a Facebook challenge three years ago,” she says. “A blogger suggested painting daily, and it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad; it keeps your fingers nimble so you’ll feel more comfortable. I came home from work one day, I was tired, and so I decided not to use a lot of colors because it would take too much time.”
It led to a series of red, white and black paintings of musicians, some of which will be on display in “My Brilliant Colors”—named after a Thelonious Monk tune. Thirty or so works will be for sell at Coworx on Friday night, framed paper works, and small and large canvases, priced from $40 to $350. Folks can meet the artist, listen to jazz, as spun from DJ Jared Sales, and enjoy free sips from Waterline Brewing and Mon Ame Chocolate and Wine, with snacks provided by Pine Valley Market.