Jonathon Romain says he emerged from seven years in prison “untarnished.” But his paintings–many of them powerful depictions of black men, women, and children in a state of meditation or contemplation–are shaped by his experiences serving time. The works are representations of the inner strength the artist needed to turn his life around in prison. “I don’t think it was a good thing. I think it was a bad thing that I took advantage of,” he says. “I made it work for me.”

In his Oak Park gallery the 34-year-old is working on a painting of a huddled young woman, her face hidden in her knees. Talking while he deftly gestures with his paintbrush, he says the painting is not about the person, but the mood. “She is finding something within herself to help her persevere or move on,” he explains. “I’m painting what I’ve been through, what I know.”

Romain grew up on the west side around California and Lexington. “It goes without saying that coming up on the west side of Chicago certainly has its inherent difficulties,” he says. “You become desensitized to the criminal activity. I certainly fell prey to those things.” He was an indifferent student and ended up at the bottom of his high school class. Knowing that college was a way to escape the neighborhood, he approached a guidance counselor, who shrugged off his inquiries. So Romain enrolled at Triton College, a junior college in River Grove, and set about improving his scholastic record. His success there won him admission to Bradley University in Peoria a year later.

But at the end of his junior year he was arrested for selling cocaine, something he says hadn’t seemed like a big deal compared to the murders and other crimes he’d seen growing up. Two weeks before his graduation in 1990 he was convicted of a felony drug offense. The judge allowed Romain to attend the graduation ceremony to receive his psychology degree, but two weeks later he was sentenced to 15 years. It was a shock. “I understood that I was putting a lot on the line,” he says, but “I never had any idea that the stakes were that high.”

Romain decided to use his prison time to work on something that had always interested him. “I’ve always had a natural inclination for art,” he says. “Going to prison gave me an opportunity to match that inclination with the time to bring it to fruition.” He started out with pencil and paper but soon learned about painting by watching other inmates. He became comfortable with watercolors, acrylics, and oils. Today he explores a variety of styles ranging from realistic renditions of people (anonymous subjects as well as icons like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X) to more abstract, colorful work. “If you were to look at my art you could see five different paintings and think it was five different artists.”

Upon his release in 1997, he took part in the work-release program by getting a job at a gallery in Peoria, but when he didn’t get along with the owner he decided to open his own gallery in a two-room storefront. It may not have been “much to look at,” but it was his first taste of freedom in years. By the time program officials figured out he was working on his own–“I neglected to tell them the gallery was mine”–it was doing well enough that he was allowed to continue. Even after he fulfilled his requirements to the state, Romain remained in Peoria and taught himself custom framing to earn additional income.

Last year he decided it was time to move on and opened Gallery Romain in November, where he shows his own work as well as that of other artists, such as Chicagoan Anita Boyd, Atlanta residents Willie Schofield and Cecil Bernard, and Michael Brown of Washington, D.C. Romain feels a personal connection with all of them. “I find it a lot easier to represent artists if I not only believe that they are extremely talented but also if I feel a kinship for them.” He’ll show his paintings and theirs this weekend at “Color: The Chicago Black Fine Art Exposition” at Navy Pier.

“The desire to paint is innate, the ability to paint is learned, and the opportunity to paint is earned,” Romain says. “I paint because I love to paint and I have found a way to do what I love.” With the anger, disappointment, and frustration of his prison years behind him, he takes a philosophical stance. “I wasn’t an innocent man in prison,” he says. “I am grateful that I was able to cleanse myself of the wrongs that I did through incarceration. Now I feel I can move ahead.”

“Color: The Chicago Black Fine Art Exposition” will take place this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the grand ballroom of Navy Pier. Admission is $12, or $20 for a three-day pass. Call 312-409-2164. –Jenn Goddu

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.