HARPERS FERRY – More than 30 years after the death of painter Garnet Jex, Deborah Piscitelli is keeping alive the legacy of the man who spent decades preserving on canvas the bygone days of this beautiful, historic town.
This week, Piscitelli will present “Jex: The Artist and the Art,” a special talk on the American Impressionist who, starting in the 1920s, created dozens of vibrant landscapes of Harpers Ferry.
Friday’s free talk begins at 5:15 p.m. at a gallery in Hagerstown, Md., where visitors also can see 40 watercolor scenes Jex painted along the C&O Canal and Potomac River.
The works are part of the exhibition, “The Upper Potomac in the Civil War,” which is on display at Washington County Arts Council Gallery at 14 W. Washington St. through Oct. 2.
“He was an Impressionist but he also was very modern – he followed his own style,” explains Piscitelli, a Charles Town native who serves as the executive director of the Harpers Ferry Historical Association. She recently became the president of AHA!, the Arts and Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County.
Piscitelli, whose fascination with Jex began nearly 20 years ago, continues to uncover new details about Jex, a prolific artist who painted 500 or so paintings before his death in 1979. Art experts have described Jex’s Harpers Ferry works as stunning with unconventional scenes and bold color choices.
Jex, who had served in the Army in World War I, studied at the Corcoran School of Art and at George Washington University. For decades, he made his living as a professional artist, working as a medical illustrator for the Army Medical Corps and as staff artist for Nature, the journal affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.
Landscape painting was Jex’s way to unwind. He regularly ventured away from D.C. to paint outdoors in Harpers Ferry, in the Virginia countryside, in Pendleton County and other remote parts of West Virginia, even the industrial landscape of Pittsburgh.
He The display in Hagerstown features paintings on loan from the Sharpsburg (Md.) Historical Society, including several images that show events from Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry as well as battles and events that happened between 1859 and 1863 along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Maryland’s Antietam Creek.
As a companion book to the gallery’s display, Piscitelli has updated and expanded a booklet created during the Civil War’s centennial celebration. The guide showcases 50 paintings owned by the Historical Society, works that Jex made starting in 1962 as the official artist for the Washington D.C. Centennial Commission.
Piscitelli’s book includes the narrative Jex wrote for each of the paintings along with notes he’d jotted in the margins about where he made the painting, the historical sources he called on and his personal reflections. She also includes supplemental details about the Civil War events Jex’s paintings portray.
The gallery is selling the book as well as notecards from 12 of Jex’s paintings and prints of 10 of his works. Sales of the images, note cards and book will benefit the Arts Council and the Historical Society.
The Maryland-based Heart of the Civil War heritage area is sponsoring the exhibit and Piscitelli’s presentation, which will be followed by light refreshments.
For those who want to see Jex’s work closer to home, one option is to visit the lobby of the Quality Inn at 4328 William L. Wilson Freeway in Harpers Ferry, where 17 of Jex’s Harpers Ferry paintings are on permanent display. The artist donated the paintings to the town in the 1960s.
For more than four decades, the paintings were displayed in a rather out-of-the-way spot, in the social hall of the Camp Hill-Wesley United Methodist Church at 601 Washington St. in Harpers Ferry.
In 2007, curators at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Va., won permission to clean and restore the paintings, then feature them in a major exhibition.
After the show’s conclusion early the following year, the plan initially was to put the paintings on permanent display at the Hilltop House, where a major renovation had just begun. When the Hilltop House overhaul bogged down, town officials made plans to display the paintings instead at the Quality Inn.
Piscitelli says the site is a particularly fitting place for Jex’s work. “He used to stay here when it was the Cliffside,” she said during a tour of the Quality Inn’s lobby, where the paintings and the nameplates created by the Winchester museum line several walls. “He’d stay in one of the cottages and then head out to the C&O or the river or whatever location he’d chosen to paint that visit.”
Piscitelli said she’s excited about sharing details of Jex’s life on Friday and someday hopes to put together a comprehensive book on his life.
“It’s not that I have any desire to be a published author,” she explained. “But I love this artist. I love his work. I don’t want him to be forgotten.”
Want to know more?
What: “Jex: The Artist and the Art,”
Deborah Piscitelli’s talk on painter Garnet Jex
Where: Washington County Arts Council
Gallery, 14 W. Washington St.,
When: 5:15 p.m. Friday
How much: Free
For details: For more on the talk or the art show (the gallery’s Friday hours will be extended until 7 p.m.), contact the gallery (301-992-9767 or www.washingtoncountyarts.com) or call the Sharpsburg Historical Society’s Vernell Doyle at 301-992-9767.
Milestones in Garnet Jex’s life