Introduction 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.

"I want to express a common wisdom woven like a thread through all cultures and throughout time."
kadir Cannon

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 image.

Cannon’s art 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 of Kentucky.

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 as vision.

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 modernist lineage
.His 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 art.

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 redemptive.