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Jesse Edwards breaks all art rules except one: He can paint

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Jesse Edwards lives in a downtown studio that is packed with his paintings. They lean in stacks and protrude in piles. His bed is a sack on the floor, which is littered with fast food packaging, art books and objects he uses for his still lifes, including a skull, a skateboard, pop cans, bongs, porn magazines, shredded dolls, a toy cop car and the odd piece of fruit.

He has a computer covered in graffiti on a wrecked table beside half an office chair, foam spilling out, that he found on the street.

Creature comforts are not his thing.

"I'm an artist," he said. "I want to paint in oils like the old masters."

An aspiration to old master painting is not the first thing that comes to mind on meeting him.

He looks like a thug. At 29, he's tall and lean with thick muscles running up his tattooed arms and down his torso. His smile doesn't often reach his eyes, which bore into people.

"I'm an ex-thug," he said. "In the old day, I'd stomp people who disrespected my tags."


"Put them down so they don't get up. I was a kid. I didn't know any better."

Edwards considers art his salvation, the job that focuses his energy, calms him and gives him a leg up in the larger world. He's part of "Pushing Five," a skateboard art exhibit that opens Friday night at Blvd Gallery, 2316 Second Ave.

To be included in a Blvd exhibit is something of a comeback.

Blvd Gallery director Damion Hayes knew Edwards on the street as a skateboarder and aerosol tagger before Hayes saw Edwards' paintings at a loft party several ago.

"I was blown away," said Hayes. "I wasn't expecting that much polish."

Hayes gave Edwards his own wall in a 2004 exhibit Hayes curated for Bumbershoot, titled "Beyond Fresh." But Edwards managed to talk himself out of representation at Blvd by alienating Kirsten Anderson, owner of Roq La Rue and financial backer of Blvd.

As an insult, Edwards painted and e-mailed Anderson an image of excrement. "I don't remember why I was mad," he said.

At this point, Anderson wants to let bygones be bygones.

Not everybody is as generous, and Edwards has a history of talking himself out of opportunities that stay gone. Awarded a partial scholarship to Cornish College of the Arts in 1999, he managed to get kicked out for a bad attitude.

"I ran my mouth and spoke my mind," he said. "I was a ruckus. Maybe I was wrong, but Cornish shocked me. I spent the year before that going to the library every day and studying the reproductions of old masters, from Rembrandt to Degas."

Because nobody was painting like an old master on the Cornish faculty, Edwards was indignant and shared his ire in class. Repeatedly.

A second chance

Gage Academy accepted him and gave him a scholarship. The director, Pamela Belyea, warned him he'd be gone at his first disrespectful peep.

"Some of his paintings are garbage but some are great. They're great, but he's intolerable," she said. "He heckles the art dealers whenever they talk here. He swaggers when he walks and breaks all rules. He still leaves me obnoxious phone messages. He has no social skills. I'm behind him all the way."

Edwards appreciates her wholeheartedly. "She's one tough lady," he said.

He stayed at Gage Academy three years, finally getting a chance to paint in the outdated style of a 19th-century academic salon. On the basis of his ability to paint lushly old-fashioned landscapes, the now defunct Kimzey Miller Gallery included him in six group shows from 2001-2004.

If that's all there was to Edwards' work, he'd be a curiosity but not someone who turns heads in contemporary art, where technical skill cannot revive an exhausted idea of beauty.

What makes Edwards interesting are the paintings he started making on his own, even though he didn't have a gallery that would show them, the still lifes created in his own ruined little apartment starring the objects in that apartment, which he paints with dark relish.

He rarely skateboards anymore, partly because he sprained his hand twice on his board, once badly, and he needs his hands for painting and his night job as security for Studio Seven, a local rock club.

"I have to be strong, not because I want to hurt anybody but because I don't want to hurt anybody," he said. "Working security, if you're not strong, there's trouble. I work nights so I can paint days. The security job keeps me from being lonely and keeps me out of bars. When I'm in bars, something happens, sooner or later."

Instead of skating, he now paints the skating life. In his canvases, the skate park adjacent to Seattle Center -- and slated for demolition -- has the depth of the Grand Canyon, with shadows dipping in around the bowl and skaters poised on its lip or scaling its wall. The tonalities are cold, but the mood is tender. In these paintings, Edwards' larger ambitions are beginning to be evident. "I want to be a draftsman like Degas and paint as beautifully as John Currin. I love John Currin's girls. I spray-painted one on a wall once."

A series of Edwards' skate park paintings are on view at Thirty Fifth North, a skate shop at 1100 E. Pike St., where Edwards is a respected member of the community.

Respect grows

And the skate community is not the only one that respects him.

"He's a raw dude, low on schmooze but smart about his art, very serious," said Hayes.

Greg Lundgren, freelance curator and co-owner of the Hideout, an art bar on Boren Avenue, visited his studio last year on a tip from a mutual friend.

"I was struck by the polarity of his work, half classical landscapes and half still lifes with crack pipes," Lundgren said. "These extremes are not often found together. What if he manages to bring them together? When he hits his prime, people are going to say, 'Whoa. Where'd he come from?' He comes from art. He's a lifer. He's not going to get a job in an office and stop painting."

Tolerated due to talent

Edwards heard of Seattle painter and ceramist Charles Krafft, looked him up online and called him. "He makes ceramic hand grenades and guns," said Edwards. "I look at them, and I'm feeling it. He's a man's artist." Edwards thumped his chest with his fist. "I love him like a brother."

Krafft ended up giving Edwards a small kiln and showing him how to use it. So far, Edwards has made a small ceramic truck, which he scribbled with graffiti and fired, and an aerosol can.

"Made two, sold two," Edwards said, grinning.

Krafft says he was shocked by his first visit to Edwards' studio. "The squalor was awful," Krafft said, "and I don't like graffiti. It's a symptom of a culture in decline, all that scribble on walls. On the other hand, I'm all for Jesse. He doesn't do his dishes, but we can't hold that against his art."

Edwards is a favorite on an urban art Web site known as Fecal Face. A Fecal Face writer followed him around Seattle several months ago and took a photo of him straddling a large but delicate sculpture on the floor at the James Harris Gallery.

Harris was furious when the offense came to his attention but decided to let it go, particularly because no harm had come to the art.

"I thought about posting his photo with a notice that he wasn't welcome in the gallery, but I respect that he's a good painter," said Harris. "I'm giving him another chance."

Lundgren says that if Edwards were less of a painter, he wouldn't get away with his personality, "even though, when you get to know him, he's a teddy bear."

A teddy bear with a paint brush and a police record for minor theft and violence.

"Nobody's perfect," said Hayes. "I think Jesse is going to surprise people who count him out."

These days, Edwards doesn't run into many people who count him out as an artist. "The whole Seattle art community has been very welcoming," he said. "I don't look like the other people at the art openings, but nobody seems to mind. They like my art, and sometimes, they even like me."

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