Jesse J. Gardner
Born: October 11, 1956 in Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Died: December 13, 2020 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA
Jesse J. Gardner 1956 - 2020
Obituary-Jesse Jenkins Gardner, Oct. 11, 1956-Dec. 13, 2020
Jesse Gardner was born with magic in his hands. At an early age, he displayed an extraordinary artistic vision evident in pencil sketches of what he observed around him in everyday life. He had a keen eye for perspective and detail that transformed the mundane into scenes of beauty, a characteristic that became the hallmark of all his later work.
He grew up in rural Vermont, in Cabot and Walden, and later Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where his parents moved in 1971 to a remote farm. Here, he developed an amazing skill for woodworking from raw materials to repair horse-drawn machinery. When he left the farm at eighteen he apprenticed to a Mennonite family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he learned the art of the wheelwright. His ability to learn quickly and the discipline he brought to his work from his farm background, were highly prized in the Mennonite community.
Later, he worked as a truck driver and established his own wheelwright shop. In New York he became a volunteer fireman. This experience had a great impact on him and he bonded with firefighters as well as first responders, with people who put their lives on the line to save others. From this experience, and the impact of the work of Thomas Hart Benton, Jesse produced a remarkable series of portraits of New York Fire Department fire fighters, from 1991-1995, that he called “’Unsung Heroes’”, An American series”, one of which was used as a poster by New York City to recruit Black firefighters. A stunning portrait features Lt. Mojica who died in 9/11 trying to save people from the burning Towers. These portraits can be viewed online at www.fineartamerican.com. In New York City he attended the Parsons School of Design during the day and the Arts Student League at night, where he was influenced by the work of George Bellows and the Ashcan School as well as the work of Edward Hopper.
As Jesse established himself in Philadelphia he gradually built up a body of oil paintings that were shown at the F.A.N. Gallery on Arch Street in the heart of the historic Old City in a restored Colonial era building, a perfect match for Jesse’s love of the architecture of the past. Five of his paintings are shown in the gallery’s 25th Anniversary edition of its catalog. Thirty of his paintings can be seen on the F.A.N. Gallery’s website, www.fangallery.com, along with these comments:
“Well-known sculptor and critic Leslie Kaufman has written of the artist’s work; ‘Gardner’s Philadelphia is not on any visitor’s map . . . he searches city neighborhoods and industrial locations to illuminate lost places whose histories were long abandoned and forgotten. . . Gardner wields his paintbrush as a spotlight—to reveal both what we have lost, and to suggest what may still be reclaimed.’ This sensitivity to place, a signature of his work, is the same, nearly unchanged, from his earliest artistic vision as a young boy.
Many in Philadelphia remember him and loved him for his magic touch in design, especially in designing restaurants, and for his generosity of heart. He worked for design studios, most notably for the firm Margeurite Rodgers Interior Design. Meg Rodgers, who knew Jesse for many years, loved him, as others did.
In the course of his life in Philadelphia, he touched many lives. His family is overwhelmed by the outpouring of grief on his passing. Firefighters, first responders, restaurant owners, those who knew him for the work he did in helping to create a green space in Northern Liberty, all the people whose lives intersected with his, have expressed their grief. He went the extra mile and he is not forgotten.
The family is very grateful for the valiant fight by the staff of Bryn Mawr Hospital to save Jesse’s life. A light has gone out of our lives but his memory remains a blessing.
His family asks that his Jewish friends say Kaddish for him. His Hebrew name was Yishai ben Chaya Esther. He will be buried in the spring in Vermont where he spent his childhood. Due to the pandemic, public memorial services are planned for 2021. Details to be announced.
Jesse leaves behind a grieving family: his wife, Yu Hong Chen, daughters Alana and Audrey, his brother Seth, his sisters, Nell and Curdie, and his parents, John and Jo Ann Gardner.