to the artist
J. Kadir Cannon, born in Oak Ridge Tennessee in 1947,
was raised in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He has worked as an artist, peace
activist, carpenter, plumber, handyman, house painter, teacher, playwright,
and performance artist. Severe dyslexia led him to drop out of high school,
and he became deeply involved in the anti-war movement of the 1960’s.
Desiring to withdraw energy from a militaristic society, he helped found
and build two rural communes, one in California and one in Kentucky, to
create an alternative and self-sufficient way of life.
Admitted to San Francisco Art Institute in 1965 on the basis of his portfolio,
Cannon majored in painting for four years. Seeking spiritual renewal,
he studied Sufism, living for a year in Sri Lanka and India. He returned
to the United States to pursue activism in the arts, co-founding Golden
River Puppets in the 1970s and Open Path Theatre in the 1990s. Later he
earned his B.A. from Antioch University in 1979 and his M.F.A. at Brandeis
University in 1984.
Husband and father of two sons, he resides in Narberth, a small community
just out-side of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has exhibited his artwork
in numerous university galleries and has been represented in galleries
in Santé Fe, New Mexico, Maine, Ohio, New York City and Philadelphia.
He continues his activism in the arts today, creating work and art events
designed to inspire, awaken, outrage, and empower his audiences.
Jerry Kadir Cannon approaches his art (painting, sculpture and theatre)
with an anthropologist’s eye. As
our world shrinks and different cultures collide, he reveals the universal
and enduring myths hidden beneath modern-day surfaces. His mask-like and
mythic art reveals his fascination with humanity. He uses painted plaster
relief, found objects and other natural materials to grapple with the
ethics, religions and cultures of our world. Cannon’s work encompasses
universal themes that visually express who we are and what we are doing
in our lives. Cannon also uses words and music to create a visual story.
With abstractions of color, texture, shape and sound (music and poetry),
Cannon crosses time and space to tell the essential human history. Through
his work, he attempts to unite the human family and transcend race, culture
and religion. Cannon compels us to feel – he makes us know –
our neighbor is like our self. Whether his work echoes someone who lived
a thousand years ago, across the globe, or right next door, we are obliged
to see ourselves and question our lives with each dramatic and emotional
bridges different worlds – a world of physical and manual labor
and a world of intellectual curiosity and fine art.
His art is directly connected to the roughness of
physical work and his life outdoors. Cannon grew up on a farmstead in
rural Ohio. His parents (father a physicist, mother a carpenter) built
their own home. As a child, he spent countless hours alone on the farm
relying on his imagination and nature around him for friendship. At sixteen,
he painted abstract tidal landscapes while working with a potter on the
coast of Maine. He was employed as a gardener in Central Park while painting
abstract cityscapes on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In the tradition
of Jack Kerouac, Cannon hitchhiked back and forth across the country.
His search for a peaceful way of living in opposition to the violence
of the Vietnam War era led him and others to create communal farms in
the logged-out woods of Northern California and the Appalachian hollows
Because of severe
dyslexia, unrecognized in his youth, the regular routes for academic and
professional success were not open to Cannon. A
high school dropout, Cannon battled to overcome these obstacles and acting
as his own advocate, he obtained permission to attended classes at Antioch
College. On the basis of his portfolio alone, he was admitted to the San
Francisco Art Institute where he studied for four years, majoring in painting.
He and his wife founded the Golden River Puppet Theatre Company, performing
for adults and children in schools, universities, and television. Later,
he completed degrees at Antioch University and Brandeis University where
he received a scholarship for the MFA program. He eventually gutted and
completely remodeled a Victorian apartment house, which has allowed him
to pursue his art full time. Through these years he also engaged in profound
self-searching, leading to his spending a year in Asia studying Sufism.
Overcoming his disability and sublimating his personal struggles to create
a fulfilling body of work make Cannon’s art as much about victory
Although not unaware of major art trends today, Cannon is reticent to
be placed in a niche. Like
a free jazz musician, he knows the current landscape, but often chooses
to use elements that he prefers over the popular trends. He draws from
other cultures and traditions spanning history, including the present.
He feels most intellectually in tune with Carl Jung, Bruno Bettelheim,
Joseph Campbell and Quaker philosophy. He is also influenced by the writings
of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Jelaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth
century Turkish poet. Cannon’s work has been described as visual
modern-day Rumi poems with a cutting edge. Drama, theater and puppetry
continue to influence his art. Two artists who have inspired him are Marc
Chagall for his color, fantasy and heartfelt playfulness, and Antoni Tápies
for his natural materials and Zen contemplation. Cannon has a deep affection
for the a whole range of music, including the jazz of Thelonious Monk,
John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Dave Brubeck, as well as twentieth
century composers Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok and Alban Berg. Such
music has profoundly influences his work.
Although he is passionate
about nature, he is not a nature painter per se, at least as that term
is generally understood. His
work is often devoid of sentimentality, even prettiness. For Cannon, nature
is more than landscapes or vistas. Hence, his paintings can rarely be
construed as depictions of specific places. Nature is not a place where
we go solely to experience externals. It is a place of communion where
we go to face ourselves and look as much within as without. True to the
adventuring part of him that chooses to canoe wild rivers, Cannon takes
the time to lie down beside still waters as much as to dive into them.
Digging far beneath the hardened surface of habitual life allows Cannon
to uncover self-recognition and excavate long forgotten links to the real
and the beautiful.
By committing himself to such re-discovery, Cannon has evolved from the
most significant artistic inspirations and influences include the archetypal
dreamscapes of Marc Chagall, the calligraphic surrealism of Juan Miro,
the druidic landscapes of Georgia O’Keefe, the heavily textured
abstractions of Antoni Tápies, and the erudite compositions of
Robert Motherwell. Cannon continues one of the central, abiding traditions
of modernism by incorporating the influences of African art (particularly
masks) and its vibrant connection to mysticism, myth, ritual and rite.
He often uses featureless, mask-like faces and rudimentary human forms
to both depersonalize and mythologize the external journey and internal
process of exploration that is being enacted in his works. The use of
African forms and motifs adds a ceremonial and sacramental aura to his
Cannon often refers
to his work as abstract narrative. Uniquely,
Cannon brings to his art a background in theatre. A professional puppeteer,
Cannon still occasionally makes objects and figures for stage productions.
Not surprisingly, his theater pieces rely on the use of ceremonial masks
and objects and incorporate Kabuki-like elements of dance and pantomime.
Curiously, Cannon’s preference for constructionist art was born
out of physical necessity. His challenges with dyslexia forced him to
find visual and physical means of expression and enabled Cannon to discover
an early aptitude for artistic and manual skills. “Art-making and
carpentry employ similar talents,” Cannon explains. “I’ve
had to work with my hands, and I’ve had to think three-dimensionally
all my life.”
Often anthropology gives way to sociology
as Cannon portrays the maladies of our over-industrialized society lacking
connection to the earth or meaning.
Moving from a series of highly textured paintings
of eroding walls and layers of earth to a series of moveable mythic images
and African-style “power fetish” sculptures, Cannon is currently
creating assemblages incorporating electrical lights illuminating shadowed
figures. Cannon offers the observer a choice between worlds. As with Chagall,
angels inhabit many of Cannon’s paintings – deputized by the
artist to bring compassion and mercy. Being an American artist with ties
to Thoreau, Whitman, Zen and Sufism, Cannon’s angels are more like
presiding spirits rising from nature than seraphim sent from heaven. That
these powers are constantly present and available to us in Cannon’s
works makes his art sacramental as well as substantive, healing and ultimately