Meet Drummer and “Artivist” Jonathan Whitney

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Jonathan Whitney describes himself as “a creative, a connector and a composer who loves learning and problem-solving.” But what makes his heart sing?

“When I’m playing with a group of musicians and the audience gets where we’re going and we’re all going there together,” he says.

The drummer and “artivist” – a combination of artist and activist – received his degree in music education from the University of Delaware and immediately got a job as band director at the Tatnall School for 11 years. He lived in Philadelphia for six years and earned a master’s degree in jazz studies there. But he was pulled back to his native Delaware.

“I love this city – the artistic community in this city is tight,” Whitney says. “In Delaware, we all talk across genres. In a given day, I can run into a painter, a spoken-word poet, a jazz musician and a classical musician, and we’re all bouncing ideas off each other. 

“People here aren’t creating art for art’s sake – they’re creating it to improve Wilmington and tell the story of the people who live here.”

Whitney’s fingerprints are all over the city. They’re also all over the city’s efforts to respond to the nation’s racial climate.

“I’m digesting that in many different ways,” he says. “Five pieces on my album released in November 2020 took inspiration from local artist Eunice LaFate’s paintings and created music that searches for understanding and solutions. My next album is a series of arrangements of spirituals and gospel music through a jazz lens.”

And then there are the murals.

In May 2020, Whitney and fellow artivist Eliza Jarvis had just watched local protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They and Delaware photographer Joe del Tufo decided to commission artists to paint over the plywood boards installed to cover damaged windows on downtown Wilmington buildings. They connected funders to the artists, who created works at locations that included Spaceboy Clothing on North Market Street. 

The mural success led Whitney – who received a $6,000 Established Art Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts in 2020 – and Jarvis to form Flux Creative Consulting. There, they’re creating events for corporations, nonprofits and government agencies to engage communities through the arts, with a focus on amplification of the great things that are already going on in Delaware.

Their aim, he says, is to continue to empower the broader community to have conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. He notes that they saw more conversations in the six months after the death of George Floyd than they had during the previous six months – even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What I love about Delaware is that leaders in the nonprofit and for-profit worlds are willing to mentor people that they see are engaged,” he says. “Delaware is all about partnering and leveraging resources because we’re small. We don’t have the silos here that you often see.”

“There are just so many ways for people to engage with the arts in Delaware.”

Whitney finds creative inspiration throughout the state, starting with Rehoboth Beach. “It’s great to walk along the beach and know that Wilmington is only 90 minutes away,” he says. He also lists the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, the Gibraltar Gardens in Wilmington and the sculpture garden at the Delaware Art Museum, where he previously worked as manager of performance programs and community engagement, as inspirational sites.

He also mentions the monthly First Friday Art Loop, “where you can walk between The Delaware Contemporary art space and the Chris White Gallery at the Shipley Lofts and stop for inspiration from the student work at Delaware College of Art and Design.” 

In terms of performing arts, Whitney notes the new Mid South Audio recording studio in Milton.  He also says he can’t wait for Nomad Bar to reopen for live performances. 

Whitney closed his interview by answering a few quick questions:

  • What’s the question you wish more people would ask themselves?

How can I love more?

  • What’s the pebble in your shoe – that thing that tends to derail you?

I’m always trying to figure out how to reach more people, always worrying about wasting the gifts I was given. I’m a workaholic, and sometimes I can’t make myself satisfied with the work I’m doing. And that takes me out of my rhythm.

  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“It’s not about forcing people to do what you want. It’s about finding a way for them to move in the direction you want on their own,” from Chet Tietsworth, another legendary drummer from New Jersey.

  • What do you love about teaching?

Watching those lightbulb moments all day long, when students say, “Oh, I get it!” or “Oh, I can do that.”

  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Two little girls and the arts. When I open my eyes in the morning, I’m already thinking about what today brings and what I’m going to do to make the world a better place for them.

 

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