Image: Tim Corrigan
Jonathan Cole, died aged 44 in a road accident in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was an artist and co-founder of Project Art Works, an organisation that creates opportunities for people with complex disabilities to make art.
Born in Fareham, Hampshire, Jon was the second of five sons. His father was a headteacher and lay Baptist preacher, and as a boy Jon willingly accompanied him on many of his itinerant preaching engagements. He was educated at St Olave's grammar school in Orpington, Kent, and then studied fine art at Bristol Polytechnic. Graduating with a first-class degree he went on to the Royal Academy schools between 1986 and 1989 and won several scholarships and awards including the De Segonzac travel scholarship in 1989 that enabled him to study in Italy for several months.
The quality of Jon's painting and the interest it attracted led him into the heart of the London art scene. This did not sit well with his innate humility and in 1992 he moved to Hastings, Sussex.
In 1997 Jon and I co-founded Project Art Works. In our work in schools for children with severe learning disabilities, we explored the use of materials and techniques including casting, etching and painting to directly express form, movement and gesture. Jon saw himself as a facilitator whose knowledge of materials and processes enabled each child, whatever their cognitive or physical ability, to leave a record or trace of a moment of experience.
Exceptionally gifted in his ability to "connect", Jon always remained calm when confronted with someone who used none of the formal, learnt methods of interaction. His patience and courage enabled people with even the most severe autism and cognitive impairment to explore a creative situation in their own way and at their own pace.
His work developed into a series of dynamic interventions through projects that tested the impact of environment on learning and creativity. He used a large geodesic dome as an external space to run painting and film workshops in special schools in Hackney, east London, Brighton and Hastings. He constructed the dome in the school grounds and this satellite space interacted with the elements, charging the workshops with energy and surprise.
During the past 10 years Project Art Works activities have been exhibited at the Brighton Festival, the Millennium Dome, the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Tate Modern and other venues. Primarily a painter, Jon continued to pursue his work privately and most often at night. He tended to avoid the mainstream art world, preferring instead to organise independent exhibitions most notably in Berlin (1996 and 1998), Mumbai, India (1998), St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton (2000), Spitalfields, London (2001), Newchurch, Romney Marsh (2002) and the Arch Studio, Hastings (Coleshaw, Sound and Painting, 2006).
Sticky, 2006 Oil on canvas 167 x 133 cm
Much of his painting was produced in series, enabling him to fully explore pictorial ideas. The Jon the Baptist series is a group of paintings of the truncated male torso in which the body is treated as an emblematic device. Most recently his compositions focused on trees simplified to skeletal, almost abstract signs. He often reworked his failed and rejected paintings as they presented a sort of "ready-made" alternative to a blank canvas. These he would subject to a process of sanding, scraping and re-painting, stripping the image of all extraneous irrelevancies until he was left with a residual sign of inexplicable significance. For Jon, painting always remained a revelatory activity in which an affirmation of life and faith could take place.
Unmoved by material trappings, he lived very simply, most recently in his attic studio at "12 Claremont", a large, elegant building in central Hastings that he bought with his wife Caroline, and renovated as a complex of subsidised artist studios.
The Cambodian documentary project that he was collaborating on with his friend, the film-maker Tim Corrigan, when he died, was a profile of Sam Rainsy, an opposition political leader. He is survived by Caroline, his four brothers and parents Brian and Linda Cole.
Charlotte Moore writes: George and Sam, my autistic sons, both benefited from working with Jon Cole and the Project Art Works team and it was at a series of workshops last summer that I fully appreciated Jon's unique gift when he worked closely with George, then 16, on two enormous paintings. Jon guided George with acute sensitivity. George has strong ideas about colour and will always limit his palette; for his first picture he would only use blue, black and white. He announced that he would paint "lightning on a pond". Jon did not bombard him with suggestions; he worked peacefully alongside, adding his own touches but always pulling back if he felt that he was encroaching.
George, who is acutely self-conscious, achieved far more than usual because he felt that Jon was taking some responsibility for the (to George) almost frighteningly dramatic swoops and slashes on the paper. Trust was quickly established. For the second painting, Jon persuaded George to add pink to vary the blues and greys, and this was quite an achievement, because pink is one of George's "sacred" colours, so intensely delightful that he cannot often bear to use it. Another vivid, energetic painting emerged, a true joint effort. The paintings were somewhat reminiscent of Franz Kline, but also quintessentially George and Jon.
I will always remember the sight of them working side by side, Jon in shorts and sandals, George in his preferred summer garb of coat and wellingtons.
· Jonathan David Westlake Cole, artist and teacher, born November 22, 1962; died January 14, 2007