Jeremy Joel looks younger than his 36 years, with intense blue eyes that flicker to green in just the right setting. The Fort Worth artist’s blue jeans are speckled with white paint, as are his worn black tennis shoes. Painting houses is his day job. What he really likes to paint is his life story, on canvas, wood and walls across the city.
“I come from a crack house just down the road,” Joel said. “My dad sold everything to support his habit. … I was scared to death.”
Joel often sat on the porch, watching his dad smoke crack cocaine. “All these quiet observations would come out,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to make sense of now.”
His paintings — several of which are featured in a new exhibit, “Pass the Peas,” opening May 11 at Shipping & Receiving Bar in Fort Worth — tell a story of drug abuse, violence and crime. Growing up, Joel struggled with addiction himself and was shuffled between residential treatment centers and group homes. It was a lot of loss, he says, “like living out of a bag going everywhere.”
Inside his bag: CDs, writings, drawings, a black sketchbook, markers, headphones, a toothbrush, a change of clothes and weed. The drugs he tried to escape as a child followed him into adulthood.
Now, the soft-spoken high-school dropout and father of three has been clean for two years. That journey started after he got high on mushrooms one day and drove to a scenic area outside of town. “I was soaking in reality … and started crying.” His kids’ mom told him that this was going to be his year. His dad told him he needed to go to rehab. Both were right.
Last year, Joel had his first solo art show at Fort Works Art in Fort Worth. He sold a painting at the show for $7,000. Around the same time, The TAX Collection, a New York City gallery focused on emerging artists, acquired Joel’s painting “Apartment A,” which shows three men in a room below the words “crack” and “cocaine.” A guy in a baseball hat is sitting in a chair with a fishing pole while a snake on the right slithers toward him. Two other men stand in front of a couch, maybe doing drugs. It’s a simple scene with a lot going on under the surface.
Today, Joel says a driving force in his life is the desire to be a good father. He wants to show his kids that it’s possible to make a living and still pursue creative work. When you look at art as a means to make money, he says, it takes the fun out of it “and fucks it all up.”
“Art is a long game,” Joel said. “I want my art to have a raw aesthetic … and I want to be able to use it to promote something good.”
That raw aesthetic and sweet authenticity that Joel conveys in person is also present in his paintings hanging up and down Fort Worth’s Near Southside neighborhood. He’s got murals inside Avoca Coffee Roasters and Magnolia Skate Shop off the trendy Magnolia Avenue. He also has a piece for kids to see outside Daggett Montessori, an elementary school in the same neighborhood.
Fort Worth’s small, fast-growing art ecosystem has offered Joel and other nontraditional artists support and community. Long overshadowed by Dallas, Fort Worth is becoming a supportive place for young artists and art patrons to meet, connect and create lasting relationships. Local nonprofit Art Tooth has been a key player in creating that type of culture.
“We strive to support local artists through workshops and by providing opportunities for young artists to show work in reputable spaces they may not have access to otherwise,” said Edward Brown, an Art Tooth board member, writer and musician. “Joel’s upcoming show is a welcome reminder that artists do not need gallery endorsements or an MFA to be featured prominently.”
A founding Art Tooth board member himself, Joel curated “Pass the Peas” at Shipping & Receiving. The venue is next door to the recording studio where Leon Bridges got his start.
“Pass the Peas” brings new and established artists from across the country and Mexico to showcase work in all forms of media, from sculptures to screenprints. Live music is on the bill, too, along with some original pieces from Joel. The exhibit runs for a month.
“The show is about creating avenues for people in Fort Worth to see more” from around the world, Joel said. “I don’t want things to become stagnant.”
For a guy who’s lived through homelessness, addiction and poverty, Joel says he’s most scared of failing and “not doing anything in his life worth mentioning.” A lot of that motivation goes back to his kids, he says. “If they can see someone come from nothing and fight off all this shit to do something to provide for them, I think that’s pretty cool.”