March 2017

Ted Rose Brings His Rhythms of Jazz Exhibit to the University Club of Nashville

“I was amazed at how the great jazz artists could pile up layers of sound and then take music in unexpected directions,” says Rose. “I started to experiment, trying to find ways to incorporate that kind of rhythm, that kind of structure into my paintings.”

by John Pitcher

Ted Rose; Photograph by Micah Beard

Ted Rose thought for a moment that he might be losing his mind. It was the mid 1970s, and Rose had just arrived in Abilene, Texas, to start a new teaching gig. A gifted landscape painter with a knack for photorealism, the young University of Tennessee graduate had for years been incorporating the rhythms of nature into his artwork. But in the flat prairie landscape of West Texas, there was no rhythm. There was only static pulse, with cacti and sagebrush stretching out in all directions for as far as the eye could see.

“It was like living on a big, brown pool table,” recalls Rose, now an eminent professor and chair of the art department at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. “I thought I’d go completely crazy if had to paint weeds for years and years.”

Witches Brew, Acrylic on canvas, 50” x 35”

With nothing interesting to paint, Rose started turning on the radio, listening to sounds from far-away stations. Jazz caught his ear. Over the speakers came the audacious chord changes of John Coltrane, the exotic electronics of Miles Davis, the rhythmic complexity of Dave Brubeck.

“I was amazed at how the great jazz artists could pile up layers of sound and then take music in unexpected directions,” says Rose. “I started to experiment, trying to find ways to incorporate that kind of rhythm, that kind of structure into my paintings.”

Some of Rose’s most successful experimentations are in Rhythms of Jazz, an exhibit on display through March at the University Club of Nashville. The eight large abstract paintings in this show are remarkable for their color, energy, and fluent sense of motion. Blue is a dominant color in most of these works. Surely this must have been a tribute to the most famous jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’s 1959 masterpiece Kind of Blue.

South Beach Mumbo, Acrylic on canvas, 21” x 51”

“Actually, I think that might have been a subconscious reaction to spending ten years in West Texas,” says Rose. “You didn’t see much blue there or, for that matter, much water. The color blue took on a precious quality for me.”

But before he could create a blue oasis in his art, Rose needed to develop a painting technique that closely approximated the fluidity and expressive spontaneity of a jazz improvisation. Applying paint directly to canvas makes a statement that is permanent and precise, like a composer writing notes on manuscript paper. Jazz musicians, however, don’t write out their improvisations. They go with the flow.

“The eight large abstract paintings in this show are remarkable for their color, energy, and fluent sense of motion.”

Burma-Shave, Acrylic on canvas, 58” x 46”

So Rose worked out an ingenious method whereby he first applied his acrylic to large sheets of commercial glass. He would use a variety of tools—brushes, road paving applicators, kitchenware, pool cleaning equipment—to create kaleidoscopic shapes and patterns. Then he would tilt the glass at angles, allowing the paint to flow with the wondrous unpredictability of one of Charlie Parker’s legendary flights of improvisational fancy.

Finally, Rose lays unprimed, cotton-duck canvas over the glass and wet paint. When the canvas is later peeled off the glass, the final design is imprinted permanently on the canvas. “The most striking thing about these paintings is the way the paint flows across the canvas,” says Rose. “People should realize that this kind of fluidity could never have been painted directly onto the canvas.”

Rose’s paintings are indeed remarkable for both their vibrancy and impetuosity. In Blues Tapestry, beautifully shaped rectangles of color overlay curved paths of indigo, cyan, and navy blue. In Witches Brew, a play on the iconic Miles Davis album Bitches Brew, half-crescent shapes seemingly float on a boiling sea of purple, blue, and green.

Celebrate, Acrylic on canvas, 51” x 40”

The works in Rhythms of Jazz are all pure abstraction. Interestingly, Rose didn’t start out painting in that style. Born in Queens, New York, he grew up in a home that valued art and athletics in equal measure. His father was a coach who happened to love both art and jazz. Rose remembers being a miserable student. When he was in sixth grade, his mother asked his teacher if he was actually good at anything. Apparently, he was good at drawing, so his mother went home and stuck a pencil in his hand.

From that point on, Rose kept drawing, eventually graduating from Lipscomb University, then earning an MFA from the University of Tennessee and a Master of Education degree from Edinboro University. Early in his career, Rose created works that were highly figurative and representational. Indeed, Cal Turner, Jr., the former chairman and chief executive officer of Dollar General, once hired Rose to create a photorealistic painting of his family’s first store. Rose remembers both loving and hating the assignment.

“I spent ten hours a day for months trying to paint all of those details,” says Rose. “My dad was a coach, and I had once trained as a gymnast, so I hated sitting still for so long. I had to find another way.”

In fact, Rose had already found a role model in the noted Texas sculptor Jesús Moroles. A true original, Moroles had perfected his own idiosyncratic technique for carving granite. No other sculptor worked the same way. After viewing Moroles’s work, Rose set out to discover his own signature technique. He eventually found it on the smooth surface of commercial glass.

Takao’s Japanese Window, Acrylic on canvas, 25” x 77”

Now, as a seasoned art professor, Rose leads his students in their own process of discovery. He doesn’t teach them how to draw, because they already know how to do that. He’s also unconcerned about their ultimate choice of medium. “I tell my students if they want to be great artists, it’s not enough to find a medium,” says Rose. “They have to first discover themselves.”

Rhythms of Jazz by Ted Rose is on view at the University Club of Nashville through Friday, March 31. For more information, visit www.uclubnashville.org. To see more of Rose’s art, please visit www.tedroseart.com.

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