Jerry Stitt’s paintings captivate. They hover on the watercolor paper, even dance. In their presence you know that you are in the presence of a master. They touch you at a deep, emotional level.
Jerry Stitt was born to be an artist, but it took many years before he took the plunge. He grew up in Seattle on Queen Anne Hill. There was seven children in the family. Jerry had three brothers and three sisters. He was right in the middle. “We had a great life,” he says. As a youngster Jerry saw pictures in his head, and like a lot of children, he had to paint them; but we was really serious about painting, even from a young age.
The family lived a block away from the grade school. Jerry went to Queen Anne High School. He had to walk a mile and a half every day, and he was always late getting there. “That’s alright,” he remembers, “I enjoyed the walk all the way to the school because I’d see all these buildings and all kinds of stuff that I would want to paint and draw.”
Jerry remembers everything he’s seen since he was about six years old. He doesn’t need to look at anything to draw or paint it because he holds it in his memory. He recalls not just the images themselves but the emotions of those images too, say for example, a building in the snow or a road in the heat of summer. He remembers his dog named Prince who loved to go walking with Jerry: “He was a collie, a beautiful collie dog, and he would go everywhere with me.”
After high school Jerry worked a number of jobs, while going to art school when he could. “I did everything,” Jerry says. He was a stage hand for the Seattle Opera House for five years. He enjoyed that because he not only met a lot of celebrities from all over the world, but saw how the stage was created for a particular scene, like the cabin in Fiddler on the Roof. Without knowing it, he was picking up art and design skills. He drove a taxi cab for four years; two years during the day and two years during the night. “Believe me, there’s a difference,” Jerry notes.
He worked for the Parks Department of the City of Seattle for nine years, stationed at the Woodland Park Zoo. There he became a journeyman plumber after three and a half years of training. He spent a year and a half in the carpenter shop, learning how to build stuff. But his favorite was working in the paint shop for about four years. That’s what he loved. He painted all the life boats for the summer season, and did a lot of lettering. “That was a lot of fun work for me,” he states. He also painted many Park and City of Seattle buildings. One building stands out.
Jerry was sent to paint the Elephant House at the Zoo. He put the five-gallon buckets of paint and all his gear in his truck and drove to the Elephant House. He came to the field where the elephant was, and the great big tall building that he was to paint. And there in the field was the elephant, and a hippopotamus too. The hippo was a good distance away and looking at him. “He was facing me, and he’s a big animal.” Jerry recalls. Jerry felt comfortable with the distance between them, so he grabbed his paint buckets, set them down over the fence, and climbed over the fence. He started to carry the buckets over to the building when “the hippo came running full bore at me, and in between me and him was this pond. He leaped in the pond and he was so big and fat that he bounced out of the water. And he was coming out of the water and I grabbed those paint buckets just in time and got them over the fence, and I leaped over the fence just as he got there,” Jerry tells.
Jerry thought to himself, “what an aggressive animal.” The Hippo moved back to where he had started, so Jerry went back over the fence. He eyeballed the hippo and thought to himself, “Well, I have to paint this building” so he bravely set out. He says, “I put the paint buckets over the fence and here he comes again, barreling right at me.” This went on a couple of times. Finally, Jerry told one of the zoo keepers about the hippo attacking him and asked what he should do. Eventually they figured out that when the zoo keepers feed the hippos they use the same paint cans from the paint shop, filling them with lettuce and other food that the hippo ate. When Jerry had put his paint cans over the fence, the hippo thought it was dinner. That was just one adventure of many that Jerry had working at the zoo for those nine years.
Jerry married Sharon Hyde, whose had a son named Rick who would become a gifted artist himself. Jerry and Sharon had three kids of their own: Ronnie, Rhonda and Christian. They were together for about ten years. Jerry’s second marriage was to Deanne Lemley, who is an outstanding artist herself.
PATH INTO ART
Jerry was inspired to take the plunge into art by a painter on television, who moved his brush effortlessly across the page. He was twenty-seven. During these years of raising a family and working for the City, Jerry took art classes at night, because he worked during the day, and had a family. He loved going to classes at Cornish Art School and another college on Capital Hill. He studied under a great art teacher whose name was Fred Marshall. Fred was an illustrator for the Seattle Times newspaper for twenty five years. “He helped me a lot because he could that I was ahead of the other people in the class,” Jerry remembers. Jerry took a shine to watercolor right away. “Yeah, those were the good ole days,” he says.
Eventually Jerry decided art was what he wanted to do with his life. “It always came down to my art, that was what I wanted to do,” Jerry says. He knew he had to make a living at it. So he started teaching watercolor painting classes. He’d work his day job, then get a studio in the evening where he’d teach his classes; then it was back to work at the city job he had during the day.
Thankfully, art allowed for him to integrate work with his family. He was able to bring his oldest son along with him to art classes. They’d travel to art classes in different cities and out in the country. Jerry remembers that the country folk would sometimes trade him vegetables and other stuff they had made for tuition for his classes. They had a good time together, and his son learned a lot too. ”I taught him how to draw. He became a great painter,” Jerry says.
Jerry taught for the University of Washington for five years, and for the University of Puget Sound too. The University of Washington would send him on assignments to bring “culture to the outside world” as they put it. They sent him to all kinds of different places around Washington State, as well as Alaska and down to California. “I went everywhere, for a week at a time,” he says.
Jerry loved teaching. He did his my homework and knew what he was talking about, and how to put art lessons is simple, memorable phrases like this one: “art is like golf, the winner is the one with the fewest strokes.” He had an acute memory, had years of architecture and design under his belt, and had the magic of being able to pull off a sparkling, even stunning watercolor with a class of students looking on. He always did a demonstration painting in his watercolor classes. They inspired the students, and Jerry would get inspired in the moment too.
Jerry has studied with such masters as Fred Marshall (AWS), Rex Brandt, Robert E. Wood (AWS), Christopher Schink and John Ringen. Regarding John he says,“I learned so much from John. He was a great painter. And he had a great sense of humor. He was fun to be around.”
Perhaps Jerry was most impacted by the Russian artist, Sergei Bongart. “He was a genius painter, the best,” Jerry says. Sergei told his students the story of how he got out of Russia. He and a friend wanted so badly to get to the United States that they walked from their hometown in Russia 2,000 miles to the German border. He and his friend walked day and night 2,000 miles to get to the German border. They walked day and night, and had to remain hidden as best they could. They found farms to stay on and would dig potatoes for food. Finally Sergei came to the Russian-German border. At the gate stood a border guard. And down the road towards him came rumbling a Soviet Truck with some soldiers in it. Sergei knew they would apprehend him. But so determined to leave Russia and go to the United States he was that he risked his life. “I’d rather die than go back to Russia”, he thought. So he walked through the gate. He waited to get shot. His pace hastened as he went through; he kept waiting for the guard to cock the pistol and shoot him in the back. He walked faster and faster. Still he didn’t hear the clicking of the magazine. Sergei got into Germany, and somehow got on a freighter that brought him to the United States. He made his way from New York to Memphis, Tennessee.
“He was one of my all-time great painter teachers,” is the way Jerry concludes the story. Those who know Jerry’s art affirm that he has some of the genius painter in himself, just like Sergei Bongart his mentor.
JOYS AND STRUGGLES AS AN ARTIST
Jerry take art and painting very seriously. He just stayed with it, and he learned from everybody he could. Art can be a solitary vocation, but in it Jerry found camaraderie. He joined the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters, who had a reputation for high quality art above all else. They were great guys and gifted artists that he had looked up to. Jerry looked forward to all those meetings and soon became President of the group. “I was among all those other big guns,” he says.
Jerry had significant success in his art career. He became a signature member of the prestigious American Watercolor Society (AWS), based in New York, in a notable way. To become a member an artist has to enter only one painting in their once-a-year national show, and you have to get accepted into that AWS three years in a ten-year span. “Well I entered it three years, and got in every year,” Jerry says with well-deserved pride. Jerry became a signature member of AWS, and as a result can sign AWS after his name. “That was quite an honor,” he says.
Jerry is also a signature member of the National Watercolor Society (NWS) as well as many of the other big watercolor societies like the San Diego Watercolor Society, the Missouri Watercolor Society and the Northwest Watercolor Society, which he served in the past as president.
But art wasn’t all the easy street for Jerry. One of the things struggles that he faced was in dealing with galleries. “I went in with my eyes wide open, [assuming] that they’re all reputable, and honorable. Most of them were, but not all. They would sell your paintings, and the rent would be due the next day, and they would say, ‘we’ll catch up to you,’. I ended up paying the rent for their gallery to stay open and didn’t get paid,” Jerry recalls. As other artists have learned, galleries tend to take a pretty good commission, usually at least 33% of sales.
Still Jerry was very fortunate. People liked his paintings and he made a very good living. He was able to make a full-time living through his art. He got a studio with artist Bill Rees in Redmond. They shared that studio for eleven years. Jerry taught classes at his studio, and he and Bill painted there every day. While they painted they talked about the old times. Sometimes they would see would have friends from the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters stop by.
My dad, Jack Dorsey, who was a member of the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters, tells the story of how he stopped by their studio in Redmond around 1979. Dad had worked as a full-time artist for the past ten years (1969-1979). He told them that he had just taken a job at Boeing. He remembers Bill Rees saying, “too bad.”
The reason Jerry paints is that it’s an emotional thing. His watercolors are infused with emotion. “It’s just something you know how to do, it’s very easy, at least for me it was and is.” Jerry knows this is not the case for all students of watercolor. He remembers that he would get a lot of students in his classes and they would think that art is about getting every little detail right, and there wasn’t any emotional content in their work. Jerry would tell them to put their heart into it, to paint with feeling. “If you’re painting a trail or a road, and it’s horizontal, paint what it’s doing. Paint horizontally, with big brushstrokes. If it’s a building, paint vertically. If it’s a figure, give it a gesture. When you’re painting feel what you are painting. Get involved with it,” He says. Jerry knows that not everybody has that intuitive nature about them. They think painting is recreating a photograph. For Jerry, this is the wrong approach, “A painter, you’re emotionally involved with the painting. You feel everything you’re doing.”
Jerry has painted in all mediums. He started out in watercolor with Fred Marshall, and watercolor stuck. What was hard about mastering watercolor for Jerry is that you only have one shot at it. If you did a watercolor, and you had something in it that was wrong, and you tried to fix it, it would look like you fixed it. You have to “paint the thing like you own it”, Jerry says. “You have to get really involved with the painting. That’s the way I paint. I get so involved. I can feel everything I’m doing, whether it’s a dirt road or a shingle on a roof, or a gesture of a figure, whatever something is doing, that’s exactly the way I feel about it. Whatever I’m painting, I paint what it’s doing. And it paints itself. It just paints itself, if you paint what things are doing.”
Jerry has an impressive resume. His web page tells: “He was a United States Navy combat artist, has paintings in the Pentagon, in the private collections of King Gustav of Sweden and the King of Saudi Arabia. His work is in the collections of Alaska Airlines, J P Morgan Chase Bank, Boeing Company, and Foss Tug Company.”
Jerry doesn’t need to stand on his resume. His work speaks for itself. I have found Jerry Stitt originals and prints in many homes of artists and art lovers throughout the northwest. And when I do I always stop in awe and wonder, even enchantment, wondering how he did it. I have learned that for Jerry it is much more than a matter of technical skill, it is a matter of the heart! He paints with and through his emotions.You don’t have to be art critic to know, or maybe it would be better to say “to feel”, that in the presence of Jerry Stitt’s paintings, you have encountered
VINTAGE WATERCOLORISTS OF WASHINGTON SHOW
You can see Jerry’s paintings, and the paintings of five other vintage watercolor artists, at Sunnyshore Studio’s upcoming Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Show.
- Opens Saturday, March 9, 2019m 10am-5pm
- Meet the Artist Reception, Saturday, March 9, 3-5pm
- Also Saturdays, March 16, 23 and 30, 10am-5pm
- Sunnyshore Studio wants to thank the Jack Dorsey family for sponsoring the show, and the Northwest Watercolor Society for partnering with us in celebrating the life and legacy of vintage watercolorists of WA.