An obscure Orangeburg abstract artist may not be able to fully comprehend his legacy because of his life-altering mental illness that began in 1962.
“James Green Jr. will probably never pick up another paint brush, but we will see where the Lord takes him,” says Annie Green-Purvis, the artist’s sister.
Green’s art was rediscovered in late July after being stored for decades in the upstairs attic of the family homestead in Orangeburg.
Purvis and renowned photographer Cecil Williams have teamed up to create a 200-page, large-format coffee table book paying homage to the rediscovery of Green’s highly creative work and the heartrending story of how his career and life were impacted by mental illness.
The public is invited to the unveiling of “Timeless Expressions: The Rediscovered Art of James Green Jr.,” a book signing and art exhibit, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 16, in The Carolina Room at The Cinema.
The Orangeburg Area Mental Health Center is the co-sponsor of the event; a portion of the proceeds from the book and original art sales will benefit that agency.
“Green’s story is a phenomenal modern-day art treasure discovery,” said Williams, publisher of the book.
What the pair describe as an extraordinary art discovery began when Annie, the book’s author, called Williams and suggested they take a more exhaustive look at her brother’s work.
The treasure hunt through the attic uncovered a collection with more than 400 works of art in boxes that had not been opened in more than 40 years. Remarkably, Green’s collection of acrylics, oils, sketches and sculpture remained sequentially intact.
After hours spent viewing the collection, he was “astounded by the rich treasure we had uncovered,” Williams said.
The collection, which spans 26 years, represents the complete artistic works created by the artist — from his high school through his college years and beyond.
Williams and James “Jimmy” Green Jr. are no strangers. Their close friendship began in the 1950s. They were best friends and partners in tennis doubles, winning against opponents all the way to the finals of the American Tennis Association, Williams noted.
At that time, ATA was the only tennis organization that sponsored national and regional tournament competition for African-American players — men, women, juniors and boys. ATA was the catalyst for tennis greats Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.
The same year Green graduated from Wilkinson High School, the skilled left-handed tennis player was the ATA’s 1954 junior singles title champion. His prowess and ability to put a spin on the ball that made it difficult to return earned him several trophies and junior championship titles nationally and in the Southeast.
“Jimmy assisted me in graphic arts when I was editor and photographer of our high school newspaper and yearbook, ‘The Wilkinsonian,’” Williams said.
More than 200 images are reproduced in the soon-to-be released book of Green’s work.
“Until now, none of the artist’s art has ever been reproduced, sold or offered to be sold. Only a few works of art have ever been exhibited or shown to the public,” Williams said. “Even in his hometown of Orangeburg, very few people know about or have seen the talent of this gifted artist.”
He said that’s extremely unusual because by the time most artists reach the pinnacle in their career, they have sold their art to patrons and collectors.
“Green’s abstracts represent art that is sometimes independent of known visual references. He uses color, pattern, form and lines that are a departure from reality. However, his portrait drawings in charcoal, conte´ (French crayon) and pen and pencil are quite realistic,” Williams said. “Miraculously, his abstract paintings of 30 and 40 years ago closely resemble current trends in modern abstract art.”
If they were alive today, Purvis is confident that her parents, James Henry Green Sr., an accomplished architect from Rowesville, and Maggie Miles Green, a homemaker from St. Matthews, would be extremely proud of their only son’s achievement.
Green’s artistic abilities were likely inspired by his father, who taught industrial arts at Wilkinson High School after graduating from Claflin Trade School and South Carolina State College. While in Professor W.W. Wilkins’ class at Claflin, he and another student designed Trinity United Methodist Church.
In later years, the senior Green went on to design Trinity’s parsonage, which is now used as the church’s office.
“In addition to other buildings around the city, he also designed and built our house at 792 Chestnut Street, where James’ paintings were stored,” Purvis said.
She and her sister, the late Martha Green Hunter, both graduated from Claflin College with degrees in health and physical education and elementary education, respectively.
After graduation, James Jr., with the help of the late Dr. Clemmie Webber, choose to attend Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. While there, he made a name for himself on the university tennis team and became a member of Beta Sigma Tau Fraternity.
After his junior year at OWU, Green left to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois while supporting himself as a part-time employee with the United States Postal Service.
At age 26, while studying at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts in 1962 at the urging of his sister Martha, Green began experiencing medical problems.
“To this day, we don’t really know exactly what caused them. Sometimes life throws us a curve. How we handle that curve can determine where life takes us,” Purvis said.
She and her husband, Vietnam veteran William Purvis, moved their young family back to Orangeburg to help care for her brother.
Leaving the house only for necessities, he lived in a deep state of depression and isolation, Purvis said.
In 2007, his medical condition worsened when his kidneys failed and he had to go on dialysis.
Green, who is now 78, never married and has no children. He is a resident of the Calhoun Convalescent Center in St. Matthews. Although the center offers a wide range of activities, Green is said to only attend the religious activities that have been his foundation since childhood.
Aside from his artistry, Purvis admires her brother as a visionary who aimed “to excel in fields that were just opening up to African Americans. Maybe, he wanted to prove a point — that blacks can be just as good as any other race in whatever field they choose.”
“As I think many will see through the art presented in this volume, had it not been for an illness in his life, James could have been one of the brightest and upcoming artists in this country,” she said. “My reason for this book project is to share with others how talented he was, that he did something with his life and, hopefully, he will be recognized for his creativity.”
For additional information about the book signing and the art exhibit, call Annie Purvis at 803-536-2357 or Cecil Williams at 803-531-1662.
Image: “Desota Musicians,” an acrylic on masonite painting by James Green Jr., ca. 1967