From Humble Beginnings

by Jonathan Wright

Growing up in a rough neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, Jonathon Romain has overcome tremendous odds to achieve national renown as an artist. “My family was more surprised when I went to Bradley than when I went to prison,” he once noted in self-deprecating fashion. But Romain did both, somehow completing his senior year at Bradley University even as he dealt with felony drug charges. Graduating from Bradley was his life’s proudest moment, he says, but it wasn’t until his time at Dixon Correctional Center that he discovered he could pursue art as a career.

Romain’s successful fusion of art and business derives from hard work and tenacity, a strategic sense for marketing, and a fierce DIY ethic. He sold his first works while still behind bars, and opened his first gallery in Peoria soon after leaving his work-release program. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he admits. And yet, he’s ridden a wave of self-confidence, determination and talent to build an incredible body of work and an impressive list of clients—including State Farm, the Cook County Bar Association and the National Black Prosecutors Association, who commissioned him to paint a portrait of President Bill Clinton.

Romain’s work has been on display at The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the National Black Fine Art Show in New York. He’s attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey, shared his story on Black Entertainment Television, and appeared with Chef Emeril Lagasse on The Food Network.

In 2013, Clemson University commissioned Romain to prepare a commemorative piece of art for the 50th anniversary of the university’s desegregation. The resulting work, “Patchwork of Progress,” was inspired by a childhood memory of his grandmother’s quilt—a fitting representation of the “bits and pieces of struggle and triumph stitched together to shape progress.” 

A series of four paintings by Romain entitled “People of Color” hang prominently in the Robert W. Woodruff Library in Atlanta, Georgia. They are proudly considered the centerpiece of the library, which serves the world’s oldest consortium of historically black colleges and universities, including Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College. Just recently he was invited by Princeton University to submit his work for a new campus portraiture initiative.

Social issues feature prominently in Romain’s work, but he also loves painting flowers, which he calls “God’s sculptures.” He’s done abstracts and collage, and his diverse range of portraits hold in common their depiction of a universal humanity. 

Romain long ago decided to use his own life story to help steer others in the right direction—“I made a conscious decision to be open about my mistakes and poor choices,” he explains. He speaks as often as his busy schedule permits, from prestigious institutions like Yale and Indiana University to smaller groups in high schools and penitentiaries. There’s nothing quite as moving as learning about the impact he’s had on someone’s life, he says, noting the story of one young man who had decided to drop out of school—but changed his mind after hearing Romain speak. 

While he’s stumbled along the way, those mistakes “pale in comparison to the satisfaction I feel when I think about the galleries I have had, the art I have created, the relationships I have built, and the lives I have touched through my art,” Romain says. It’s a legacy he hopes to expand for years to come. a&s

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