Jewish Mentor of the Month: Multi-Disciplinary Artist, Jon Gann

by Kendra Rubinfeld / April 26, 2021

Spring has sprung! And with it comes Passover, Yom Hashoah, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and for us Washingtonians, the Cherry Blossom Festival. In addition to the pretty pink blossoms that ornament the trees around town, you may have also noticed the giant cherry blossom chair sculptures decorating our corners in neighborhoods throughout our fair city. 

For our April installment of Jewish Mentor of the Month, we bring you one of the 26 artists behind this very cool project spearheaded by the Cherry Blossom Festival for their Art in Bloom project. Meet Jon Gann, a multi-disciplinary artist who turned his love of the arts into a successful career. We chat about all things creative including his most recent project – a documentary about Alma Thomas, the first African-American woman to exhibit her paintings in the White House.

Follow him on IG @jonganndc for more on his DC adventures!

Kendra: Where are you from and where do you live in the DMV now?

Jon: I was born in DC, and currently live in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of downtown.

Kendra: Why DC? 

Jon: Why not? It’s an international city full of culture and power — but still a small town.

Kendra: What’s your dream day in DC, COVID aside?

Jon: I would start the day with a long walk with my dog to the Mall. After that, I’d take a long, hot shower and then meet a friend at an art museum to reflect on how beautiful the world can be. We’d picnic with a bowl of hummus at Little Sesame, followed by a nice nap. I would finish the evening with a passeggiata with my partner Michael to discover what’s opening soon. 

Kendra: How do you relate to your Jewishness? 

Jon: While I enjoy attending holiday services with my family, I am more strongly affected by the culture of being a Jew. During lockdown, I took up baking, and have done pretty well with challah, bagels, hamantaschen, and babka. Years ago, I reworked my grandmother’s traditional Ashkenazi dishes into a variation that was a little healthier. I recently took up Yiddish, and have been working on a family tree project, for which I have been able to trace my roots five generations back to the shtetls of the Pale.

Kendra: So we hear you won the cherry blossom sculpture design contest and are one of the artists featured around the city. Tell us about that and where we can find yours! 

Jon: I am one of 26 artists selected to create a cherry blossom chair sculpture, and am very happy to have been included. My chair is located at the Penn Branch shopping center on Pennsylvania Ave, SE in Ward 7. It’s a center I know much about, as I helped to create a pop-up mini golf course there three years ago, and, according to my parents, was conceived in their first apartment a few blocks away.

Kendra: Ha! Amazing. So, are you an artist? How would you qualify yourself as it relates to your career? Can you tell us a bit about some of the many artistic endeavors you’ve helped create and give platforms? 

Jon: I consider myself a multidisciplinary artist – I work in many mediums, as the mood takes me. I have written plays and musicals, produced and directed films, blown glass objects, designed and wrapped a city trash truck, created multiple film and arts events in the DMV and around the world, and I knit while flying from place to place. To me, they are all projects which help me express what I want the world to represent – beauty, simplicity, kindness, and belonging. 

Kendra: You’ve made your passion for the arts into a career. Not many people can say that and I’m sure our readers would love to know what you did to get where you are. Can you speak to how you created that space for yourself and some of your projects past and present?

Jon: I have always been fascinated by design, so while in college, I interned at a few advertising agencies and opened my own shop to make CD and pizza money. After graduating, I landed a big client, and made a go of the ad biz for about 15 years. When I hit 35, I had an epiphany about what being creative really means to me, and went to film school to learn about filmmaking.

After film school, I made a few movies, but decided that I was better suited in promoting the works of others, so I started the DC Shorts Film Festival. I grew the event from a one-day series of screenings to a week-long event that is one of the largest and most significant shorts fests in the world. Creating DCS led to many other paths, including event production and arts consulting, and starting new festivals in the UK and elsewhere.

Currently I am finishing up production of a documentary about Alma Thomas, a Black woman artist who was based in DC. Born a generation after slavery, Alma Woodsey Thomas grew up in the South, in a home where education was a priority. At 16, with racial tensions high and no further schooling options, her family moved to Washington, DC, where she started her incredible life of firsts: the first Fine Arts graduate from Howard University, the first African-American Woman to mount a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the 1970s, and the first African-American woman to exhibit her paintings in the White House. All the while, she taught art at Shaw Jr. High for 36 years, pioneered educational techniques, travelled the world, and crossed racial barriers. Yet she did not receive national attention until she was 80 – six years before she passed.

Her story is fascinating, and resonates with anyone who needs to do what makes them happiest.

Kendra: So interesting! When can we expect it to be released? 

Jon: The film is being released this July and will tour with a four-city museum retrospective exhibition. It will make a stop at the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle next fall. We are planning special screenings at the new MLK Library, and at select film festivals – because everything comes around to where I started.

Kendra: DC certainly has a booming art scene. What would you say to readers looking to dive into it? Where should they start? What challenges should they expect? What resources should they use?

Jon: The art scene in the DMV is incredibly vast — and surprisingly open and welcoming. The cherry blossom artists all banded together and now we communicate daily through IG, sharing resources and new commissions. 

I would start with the central repositories of info and money. Each municipality has their own arts organizations, including the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Arlington Arts, Arts Fairfax, and Creative MoCo, among others. Then find like-minded artists on social media — there are so many great forums to read through. 

I was fortunate enough to move into a building full of artists of various disciplines. That really kickstarted me to pursue other styles, including photography and glass. Over the years, we have banded together to create a few group projects, including a few musicals we presented at the Capital Fringe Festival.

Kendra: What would you tell your 25 year-old self? 

Jon: Relax. Everything will happen, just not in the timeline you, or others, imagined. 

Kendra: “When Jews gather…”

Jon: …opinions abound. Express yourself robustly.


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