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MADISON-Jerry Jordan evaluates every application for admission into UW-Madison equally. But you couldn't blame him if he spent just a little more time poring over the transcripts of prospective art students.
A decade ago, Jordan was himself an art student, earning degrees in art education and curriculum and instruction from UW-Whitewater, and planning a career as an illustrator or art teacher. But over time, his plans changed, and when he heard about an opening as a UW-Madison admissions counselor, he jumped at the chance.
"I really ended up coming into this job by luck," he says of the position that he's held for the past four years. "I was on the verge of becoming the starving artist that everyone talks about."
Today, he specializes in recruiting African-American students to UW-Madison and he does so in a wide swath of the Midwest, including Indiana, Chicago's south suburbs and sections of northern Illinois.
"I love the work," he says. "I'm able to help a lot of students who don't come from a privileged environment."
Jordan and the Office of Admissions just completed one of it's most successful years ever, enrolling a class of 5,564 freshman who entered with the highest average class rank, grade point average and composite test scores of any class in the history of the institution. (See story, page 1.)
Even more encouraging, from Jordan's perspective, is an increase in applications from and enrollments by students of color. The incoming freshman class has 716 students of color, up from 629 last year.
While admissions is Jordan's profession, art remains his passion. While growing up in Racine, he honed his natural talents in oil and pastel paint and charcoal drawing, developing an expertise in portraits. His Red Gym office is ringed by several landscapes, portraits of his family and six covers that he created for the Madison magazine Umoja.
After a time, Jordan began charging for portraits, turning his hobby into a lucrative sideline. The paintings, which can take several weeks to several months, depending on a client's timeline, can earn him $1,200 or more. For the most part, his business has grown by word of mouth, with many of the commissions coming from men who are looking for birthday or anniversary gifts for their spouses. To date, he's completed nearly 100, mostly done in oil on canvas.
Jordan has also put his talents to use on campus. Earlier this fall, he unveiled "Heritage," a mural measuring 15 feet by 5 feet, 5 inches, that he created for the Multicultural Student Center (MSC) Satellite Office in Gordon Commons. The work's background includes scenes of Africa, Asia and South America. The mural features the faces of dozens of prominent African, Asian, Hispanic and Native American figures, including Cesar Chavez, Vang Pao, Mae Jemison, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. - "people we should all get to know," he says of the subjects.
The mural, the largest project Jordan has attempted, was a major logistical challenge to research, design and paint. He divided the work into four interlocking sections, each of which he painted in his home studio. With a busy work and travel schedule, much of the work was accomplished late at night. "I did a lot of preliminary sketches while I was on the road, waiting for high school visits to start," he says.
Students and staff are excited about the work and the atmosphere it creates, says Siavash Sarlati, a member of the MSC staff.
"Our staff sat down early last fall to brainstorm ideas for the mural and many people wanted to see faces representing multiculturalism and the diversity of people and ideas in America," Sarlati says. "It seems to me that Jerry focused on this and took it to a new level. The mural adds an energy to the space that was never there.
"Usage of the space is up this year and I can't help think the mural's intriguing design and inviting presence is a major contributing factor," he adds.
Jordan's next major project is to teach his 5-year-old son Miles to follow in his footsteps.
"We draw cars and monsters together," he says. "He's starting to show some signs of being an artist."