PROVIDENCE — Ten years ago, Jordan Seaberry abandoned painting. He dropped out of Rhode Island School of Design halfway through his junior year. He felt called to community organizing, and set to work on prisoners’ rights reforms.
Today, he’s painting again, and among the 23 artists spotlighted in the “deCordova New England Biennial 2019,” which opens April 5. And he’s director of public policy at the Nonviolence Institute in Providence, a nonprofit that supports at-risk communities, victims of violence, prisoners, and the formerly incarcerated.
“They’re two threads in the same practice,” says Seaberry, 29. He’s standing in his studio in an old mill building looking at his latest canvas — one of a new series he will exhibit in his first solo show, “We Speak Upon the Ashes,” at Steven Zevitas Gallery in June.
His large-scale, imagistic mixed-media paintings address systemic injustice, family wounds, and moving forward. All of those come into play in his work as a community organizer. “People are victimized and people perpetrate because there’s an overall abandonment of the system,” he says. “There are patterns of trauma on both sides.”
Seaberry grew up in Chicago, and found RISD “a tough adjustment,” he says. “There were levels of wealth and issues of class I had never come in contact with.”
So for 2½ years, he worked on legislative goals to improve prisons. “Our first victory was unshackling pregnant prisoners,” he says.
And he didn’t paint. He built his own community — organizing, he says, “is all about relationship” — but he knew something was missing.
“I had to go back to RISD,” he says. This time, it felt like home. “I had three semesters left. I would have stayed for 10 years.”
That’s when Seaberry began to pull the two parts of his life together. For his “Violences Project,” he reached out to the families of people murdered in Providence during 2013. He sat with the bereaved and listened to stories of struggle, stigma, and grief.
“I got to know the void left in the community,” he says. He painted a small portrait of the deceased for each family — mostly mothers, he says, who lost sons.
“I wanted to give them something permanent,” Seaberry says. “Oil painting is the most elite, the most bravado medium. I wanted to offer them this, about someone who may have been vilified by the community, the same attention you might give to someone who died in an accident.”
He also painted a large mixed-media painting about each victim. “I collaged in police records, photos from inside the home,” Seaberry says. “Those narratives would hang side by side. I completed 10. Fourteen people were murdered in Providence that year. There are a couple I’m still hoping to get to.”
As he worked on the “Violences Project,” Seaberry approached the Nonviolence Institute to help facilitate relationships with the families. Then he finished art school, and the agency offered him a job as a victim advocate. Now he works on legislative initiatives. He’s also pursuing a master’s degree in legal studies.
His paintings, meanwhile, grew more personal. Smaller works from a group called “The Undercommons” are on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, and two large-scale canvases from his series “The Wanderer,” which springs from his own family history.
“My grandfather’s family was chased from Mississippi by the KKK,” Seaberry says. “That initial wound is what all my work revolves around.”
“He’s making on a mythic scale the story of his own family,” says Sarah Montross, curator at the deCordova. “There’s so much going on beyond the fascinating content. He’s experimenting with collage and different styles of mark-making.”
Seaberry depicts himself and his father in “The Wanderer” paintings, which are punctuated with old photographs, comic book panels, and other ephemera rising from and submerged by clouds of paint — a vision of how family stories accumulate, live under the surface, and disperse.
“They address how trauma is passed down through generations, how it moves across generations as a family moves,” Montross says.
Seaberry tends to view life and society in terms of painting. “Trump’s election has, not unlike a painting, revealed layers underneath — of racial animus and ecological degradation,” he says. “They were always there at the bedrock.”
His process on canvas, like community organizing, is incremental, the outcome unpredictable. “All my work is call and response. I’ll start with a layer, and think I’m done. But by the time it truly is done, that layer is invisible,” says the painter. “It’s a release of control and a level of trust that is hard, and has to be learned.”
In “Hallmarks,” the last painting in “The Wanderer” series, Seaberry says, he and his father are ghosts.
“You don’t see either of us rendered. We are, but we have been painted over. It’s the final chapter. To give someone this care and time of bringing them into a piece, and then to cover them — it’s not erasing them. It’s moving on.”
Seaberry’s newest paintings, still in progress for his June show, are more overtly political. “Every piece is calling and responding to legislative issues and structural issues,” he says. “Court fine reform. License restoration. Gun reform bills.”
This is the stuff of his organizing life. “I want to have the show be a meditation on why we engage in issues bigger than us,” Seaberry says. “Our fates are tied to each other. Our humanity is tied to each other. And what is art if not a demonstration of connection?”
DECORDOVA NEW ENGLAND BIENNIAL 2019
At deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, April 5-Sept. 15. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org
We Speak Upon the Ashes
At Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., June 7-July 27. 617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com