Captain William E. Jordan: He Paints in the Dark, Institute 193, Lexington, KY

Time and again, the drawings in Captain William E. Jordan’s exhibition He Paints in the Dark are a wild celebration of color and a free hand. Tall trees, bright rocks, the sky, deep gorges with meandering waterways, and rolling mountain horizons are depicted in luminous, fiery reds and yellows, blues that dominate, and greens that glow. The colors and reductions of the landscapes that feel slightly off-balance produce a hallucinatory sensation. We often think of landscapes like these as a snapshot, frozen in time, but Jordan’s drawings radiate with adrenaline; they are alive. If a drawing could ever look thrilled to exist in this world, it’s this.

If the details from the scenes appear hazy, it is because Jordan is composing them from memories of a long life well-traveled. As an infant, he was left on the doorstep of a Chattanooga church, which resulted in growing up in a series of orphanages and foster families in Georgia and Alabama. Then at nine, while visiting the Tri-State Circus, he befriended a trapeze actress who brought him to her home in Philadelphia. In his second year of Medical School, he was drafted into World War I, where he served and was wounded by a chemical attack in France. After the war, he wandered between numerous locations and business ventures, at one point walking for seven months from New York to Denver, reporting on road conditions for a national highway magazine. In 1957 he lost vision in one eye, then at 62, he lost the other due to glaucoma.

A veteran’s hospital encouraged him to learn a skill, hammered aluminum craft work, but he balked. After time wallowing in the darkness, his wife laid out some pencils and paper for him to get her husband to adjust to his new life. Closing his eyes, colors emerged, bright and vivid, like closing your eyes and staring up at the sun. Those blocks of colors began forming the landscapes, recovering scenes from his subconscious that he barely noticed, or found of significance when he had sight. 

His process was tactile, working first with a lead pencil, laying down lines heavy enough to create indentions he could feel, then filling in between those guiding lines with carefully arranged Prismacolor pencils. He would read the paper with his left hand, as the right colored in the details. The accuracy is uncanny. 

Despite recovering from the depths in his subconscious, Jordan has a way of orchestrating the scene, so we can also feel a sense of being present. In Volcanic Magic, 1961, Jordan concocted a fantastical eruption. Great plums of gas and ash in various shades of grey emanate from the vent and layer themselves over a contrasting fiery fluorescent red sky. Where the hot palette truly comes into play are the lines of lava that have burst from the willful mound and snake their way down into the water below. 

A long line of clear-cut trees unfurls across the paper in a piece that is Untitled and not dated. What was once a dense forest has been reduced to a repetitive knobby shape of stumps and their roots, water gently rolling in towards a thin strip of sand. The scene is soft and dreamlike, at times a little woozy. The stumps nearest the shore were drawn, reflecting in the milky water, though seemingly, impossibly, floating perfectly on top of the surface. Amongst the stumps, he has included 5 barrel-bodied trees that survived but have been stripped of their bark from the ground up. Before beginning a new work, Jordan’s wife would organize his pencils, keeping the colors prearranged in the same sequence each time. However, as his popularity grew, so did his frequent visitors. On more than one occasion visiting school children would pick up his pencils without setting them back in the same order; thus, we find one blue tree here. 

A wild crag in Indian Lookout, n.d. is layered like a mystical ice cream cone, each level of the ancient rock formation a different gradation of rusty-oranges russet and chestnut. From this elevation, we have a birds-eye view of the world below. A pastoral expanse of glossy green grass is ringed by wintergreen pines, and steely snow-capped mountains loom in the distance. A raw earth hiking path climbs and climbs, its switchbacks so sharp they are almost nail-biting 180s°. In Jordan’s recollection of this scene, I see all that is weird and wonderful about the unspoiled American landscape. Here the wildly exaggerated colors create a mysticism that helps to pull you into the unknown. Individually the drawings are small but seen together; they map out infinity. Each drawing is an invitation to join him in a memory.