Madison artist Jerry Jordan is going to be very busy for the next couple of years. At least.
At the moment, Jordan is creating illustrations for “Marching for the Vote: the Story of Ida B Wells and the Women’s March of 2013” by Dinah Johnson, slated for publication by Little, Brown next year. He’s recently finished the first painting — a 24-by-36-inch work that will eventually spread across the first two pages of the book.
And he’s already signed on for two more projects: “Unstoppable John,” a biography of Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis by Madison-area author Pat Zietlow Miller set to be published by Viking in 2024, and another project yet to be announced.
In all, it’ll be about 120 paintings, Jordan said.
The illustration projects are one part of a career that’s been looking up lately after many years of hard work and patience.
“I hesitate to say because the last few years for the entire world (have been) really, really rough. They’ve been bad,” he said. “As far as my art career goes, they have been the best years ever. I guess people are at home and decided they want artwork. My paintings are selling and I’m getting plenty of commissioned work. And then with the books it’s pretty cool. It’s a dream become reality.”
Jordan, who works in a contemporary realism style in the tradition of Harlem Renaissance influences, said the process isn’t a close collaboration with the author; rather, once a publisher acquires a manuscript, they choose the illustrator they think will best accompany the text.
“Everything’s been done through emails. I don’t know how it was done before the pandemic but for me it’s been through emails,” Jordan says. They’ll send me a copy of the book. And I’ll read it and just do some real quick, quick and dirty thumbnail sketches and show them that I have a vision of how the artwork should look. So far, they’ve liked everything.”
That way of doing things allows the artist freedom to do their thing.
“He wasn’t hanging over my shoulder while I wrote the words,” and doesn’t need an author watching over him as he works, Miller said.
Matching art to words doesn’t significantly impact his process, Jordan says.
“It’s not that different,” he says. “When I read the story, I get a vision in my head of what the character will look like and what they’re doing … it’s still the same creative process.”
Jordan earned a degree in art from UW-Whitewater in 1988 with the intent to design album covers. In recent years, he’s been featured in a number of gallery shows all over the country and has taken on some major commissions, including a mural depicting the history of Black Madison at the Madison College Goodman South Campus and an upcoming mural at American Family Insurance’s Spark Building on East Washington Avenue. He also works full time as a recruiter and student adviser in the UW-Madison School of Education.
Jordan got into the children’s illustration game thanks to his wife’s Twitter account. Nyra Jordan is social impacts investment director at American Family Insurance, where Miller also worked until recently. Several years ago, she tweeted one of Jerry’s paintings, which caught Miller’s attention. Miller retweeted it, and her agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, noticed.
“I was just sitting down to write an email to my agent saying, ‘hey, you need to check out this person’s work, when my agent emailed me and said, ‘Do you know this person? HIs art is amazing.’ We both came to the same spot, and I said, ‘yeah, I do. And I was just about to email you.’ And now she represents him and she represents me. And we have this book coming out together, which is all like just tons of coincidences,” Miller said, noting that she still hasn’t met Jerry Jordan.
Apparently, Jordan’s reputation has only grown since then; Miller said representatives from Viking reached out to Paquette to inquire about Jordan before Paquette even pitched him.
Jordan said even in the digital age, people are still buying books — and publishers still looking for top-quality art.
“Illustration artists are in high demand,” he said. “The way it stands now, my agent is actually holding off getting more work. She could get more work for me but I gotta prove myself.”
Jordan and Miller both said they’re keenly aware of what it means to depict such historical subject matter.
“I felt a huge responsibility to get it right,” said Miller, a former journalist. “I was really relieved when they signed Jerry up, because even without knowing him, just what I do know of him, I knew that he would have an equal responsibility for getting it right. It was very reassuring to know that he was being matched up with me on this one.”
“It is a challenge and responsibility” to visually tell the stories of historic figures like Wells and Lewis, Jordan said. “I have to step back and remind myself that a little kid is going to be reading this and I want them to to see the painting and get lost in it, see all the details. It’s a huge responsibility.”