A new exhibit opening Sunday at Glean centers on the Short North artist's illustrations, many of which are more socially and politically charged than the work for which he's best known

Malcolm J. has long been celebrated for his streetscapes, many of which center on the Short North, a neighborhood that has served as a welcoming haven and an incubator since the artist moved to Columbus from Cleveland in 2005. 

“I originally came here homeless and distraught,” said the artist, born Malcolm Jones. “And I basically came here because of that, because I needed a new direction in life. I was dealing with some problems, some internal problems — chemical dependency and depression — and I came here for a fresh start.”

After relocating, Malcolm J. made his initial imprint on the city painting street scenes, which is still how many know him best. At the same time, he’s also regularly exhibited in gallery spaces and crafted commission pieces, in addition to other artistic achievements, some of which he relayed in a series of text messages following our early July conversation, including founding an after-school project teaching underprivileged kids in Weinland Park how to draw and exhibiting in Pickerington public schools. 

“I’m OK being known for [my work as a street artist], because I love being out in the throng, interacting with people and sharing my art,” he said. “But I want people to know that I’ve done more than that.”

Another side of the artist will be on display during a new exhibit that opens at Glean (815 N. High St. in the Short North) on Sunday, June 19. The show, which runs through Aug. 30, collects illustrations done over the last 15-odd years, and which have never previously been on public view. Many of the drawings are based in the social and political issues Malcolm J. viewed on news telecasts, in addition to a handful shaped by the more personal demons that drove the artist to relocate from Cleveland.

Malcolm J. described one drawing in which a police officer shines a flashlight on a family living inside a trash can, the humans flanked by a family of luggage-toting rats just back from vacation and wondering what the squatters are doing in their home. “There’s some humor, but it also has that meaning that sometimes people have to live … in deplorable settings,” said the artist, who will be on hand to discuss his illustrations during Sunday’s opening, which runs from noon to 5 p.m.

The exhibit continues the artist’s gradual return to the scene following a vicious March 2018 attack at Mike’s Grill in the Short North in which Malcolm J. was struck with a bottle, losing one eye and sustaining damage to the other. In the years since, the artist said he’s been forced to adapt his approach to creating, in addition to increasing the scale of his pieces, since he can no longer focus as intently on detail work with his limited vision, though he’s optimistic that could change in the near future.

“There’s a new technology coming out that should help me [sharpen vision in my remaining eye], but when I’m drawing now it’s a little on the slower side,” he said. “It’s a new challenge for me, but I welcome it. It just makes me concentrate a little bit harder.”