Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mr. Jones and I: A Q&A between Cara Ober and Robert Sparrow Jones, as seen in Gutter Magazine.

Cara: Before you were a painter, you were a photographer. Do you still consider yourself a photographer? How did photography lead you to painting and how does it continue to affect what you create? How is 'thinking in photography' different than 'thinking in paint'?

RSJ: I wanted to be a film director. Growing up in a small rural area in Pennsylvania my introduction to art came through the movies. I connected with the common man finding himself in an extraordinary circumstance and by the work of Truffaut, Goddard, Hitchcock and Woody Allen, I began making short films with a super-eight-movie camera. (You can see a later movie "Silverman" on UTube still!) Narrative is essential to my painting, I am the son of an English teacher and my interest in books fueled my passion for storytelling. The rich velvety black and white mise-en-scène in film led me quickly to photography and prompted the purchase of my first 35mm camera. I had stumbled across "The Americans," by Robert Frank in our small library. It was a remarkable and haunting book of images I kept coming back to. Then I discovered Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark. Vignettes of mysterious life are prevalent theme in my own painting. I tried to come close to something of a mixture between Frank and Arbus as I studied photography. Printmaking came naturally to me while I was into photography. The physicality of printmaking along with my propensity for expressive mark making took me to lithography. I was well out of school when I began painting but the results were immediate. The moment I made my first painting everything changed for me. I felt the summation of everything I loved about process and content come together in a new and transfixing way. This has never left me. Painting enigmatically embodied everything; storytelling, film and photography. I don't consider myself a photographer now, though eight years ago I may have when I had a small exhibit in the Northwest.

Cara: What is the deal with all your paintings of pretty ladies out in the landscape? Are these paintings fantasies or realities? Why are they usually outside? Who are these women?

RSJ: My narrative vision is a combination of many sources including, landscape, upbringing, faith, family and friends. As a boy I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and I was always outside. There is a definitive connection for me through nature. I daresay I find it spiritual. It's a feeling. A feeling comes to me and then a story. The paintings are built from there. I was lucky enough to grow up around strong, intelligent woman. My two sisters, who are around my same age, have very individual personalities and strong opinions. I also have a sensitive younger brother who is an artist. My best friend from my childhood had three older sisters who were somewhat wild and ambitions and used to baby-sit us all the time. My best friend from middle school to this day has seven younger sisters. To me the people who are in my pictures are strong willed, curious and embody that intellect by way of what I always think of as a distorted beauty. Beauty is an easy way into the painting. The "Prettiness" veils the dark mysteries that lay underneath. These paintings are not fantasy at all and inversely are convolutions of memory. I have become obsessed with memory and memory loss. Most these images are culled from childhood in one way or the other. And truthfully there are quite a few of my paintings with boys in them. It makes me think that they perhaps come across as less provocative but I am interested is the way that beauty of the image causes such a reaction.

Cara: You've had your work described in a number of publications and reviews, including your last show at Gallery Imperato being named 'Best Solo Show of 2007' by the Baltimore Citypaper. However, it seems like the reviewers always gets something wrong, either in their description of the work or in their analysis. If you could imagine the perfect explanation/description of your work -- what would it say?

RSJ: I like to think of my paintings as movies. And I also know how ridiculous that sounds. Painting has a different dimension that film. This just how I see them. Using heightened color weights the image into something other than reality. I am playing with memory and movement. I like to think this color engages just the right amount of tension, psychology and emotional indifference. Apparent everyday scenes are experienced through the expression of paint are invested with meaning beyond the ordinary. Each work implies a chance for magic and wonder in an otherwise mundane scene. A typical painting presents an iconic subject underlined with subtle open-ended questions. An appreciation of the painting can be based on the straightforward narrative image or evoke a more complex interpretation and response. And maybe that something about it will be subtlety urgent and retain its burn in the memory. They don't always do that but when I am making them I believe it is so.

Cara: Before you were known as Robert Sparrow Jones, you were simply known as Rob Jones. It's a pretty common sounding name, much improved and more memorable with the sparrow added. Where did this name come from? What is the significance of the sparrow?

RSJ: The native part of me is lost or forgotten with my childhood. As a young boy I was always sleeping out under the stars, exploring the woods and building treehouses. I read a lot of folklore. I was attracted to the way birds are used as symbols. While I was in Seattle I made a documentary on the resurgence of the Canoe Nations. Spending time with the many tribes as we traveled with them up the coast was awe-inspiring. I wanted a middle name that was related to my upbringing and my interests. Sparrow is a master of flight and camouflage. As an air totem, the sparrow speaks of higher thoughts and ideals. She beckons us to keep our burdens as light as we can in order to avoid a heavy heart. Birds continually come into my paintings. After leaving the Northwest, Sparrow embodied a rite of passage; not to be forgotten—two lives now.

Cara: For all of the years you have lived in Baltimore, until this one, you were a long-haired hippie, often sporting a zen-master bun on top of your head. How is life different now without the bun? Do you prefer short or long hair? Please discuss the pros and cons.

RSJ: It's funny you should say that. There was a reason behind my long hair, a story that is tangled and may involve murder. I never saw myself as the hippie type. I must admit though I am awfully green and have a working vegetable garden on my fire escape and compost and recycle everything. In short it was another spiritual thing. I have an uncle who is a priest and another who is a devout brother at the Vatican in Rome. I was always interested in religion, grew up Catholic but read about Buddhism and Native American spirituality. Right out of undergrad I spent some time in a monastery on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. I don't know how long I grew my hair, probably at least eight years, maybe even ten. I just felt I didn't need that bun anymore. And the moment I cut it all off, I felt a sense of lightness. I became more myself.

Cara: You attended the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA to earn your MFA degree here in Baltimore. Do you have a favorite Grace Hartigan or MICA Grad School story?

RSJ: Grace and I got along straightaway. I was so interested her life. Grace can certainly tell a story or two and she has an impeccable eye for painting. Sometimes she would wheel into my studio and we would just talk about anything but painting. I helped her pack her library on Eastern Avenue. I remember the day Henry Cartier Bresson died I drove down to Fells' Point and rang her buzzer. Grace, as usual, tossed a sky-blue argyle sock from a third floor window. The sock fell to the pavement and I took the key from the sock. There was a puddle in front of the door and I had to jump to get inside. Grace's studio was becoming empty. I was packing her library into cardboard boxes. I labeled several boxes Ab-Ex and then five more Poetry. The day before we were talking about Frank O'Hara, she talked about him with such love. That morning she directed me to her bedroom to get something off her night table. There was stack of correspondence and she let me open a letter from Frank O'Hara. Then I saw a package marked "Utopia Parkway" and I gasped. She was delighted to bring out a small box and a story. In the box was a pennant made by Joseph Cornell, a heart with nails stuck into it. The next day she wore it to our Critiques. Grace and I got along well, although I think she was frustrated with me because I never answer the phone. I wish I could remember the gypsy song she sang to me once while watching a painting of mine.

Cara: You're leaving town! You got a full professor job somewhere far away. Other than the money and respect you are sure to earn, what are you looking forward to most? Where are you going to, anyway?

RSJ: I will be teaching painting at the foothills of the Appellation Mountains in the North of Georgia. A small private College surrounded by bucolic green fields but close to Athens and Atlanta. I am looking foreword to the possibility of creating new work, both painting and writing. I know this change of landscape and lifestyle will create new ideas. I also plan to work hard at spending my summers traveling and researching.

Cara: What will you miss most about Baltimore?

RSJ: All my friends. Baltimore is a wonderful conundrum. Baltimore is full of outstanding artists, filmmakers and writers. I will miss everyone. I am often quiet but I rely on them. I will miss Carma's Café, the dogwalkers, and beers at the Club Charles. My obsessive runs with my white boxer, Apple, up and down Stony Run, through Roland Park and behind Robert E Lee. My lonely Druid Hill Park runs in the dead of winter. The Signal on Fridays and espresso by the water on Sunday. Riding my old Schwinn through the city at 3AM. Baltimore, my Paris, my Tahiti, my wonderful and dear friends.

Cara: What do you think Baltimore will miss most about you?

RSJ: I don't know, my mysteries. And my miseries.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

At Fall's End, Part II (Part I Under Jan 2008)

It was five am and the alarm started off loudly though I had already been upright, speed-thinking with the reading light on. I went to reach for it and every visibility of the past day disappeared as I knocked a stack of books to the floor. They had been parted center story like seagulls in gliding flight but tumbled to the floor like rabbits down the hole.

In the mirror my skin looked transparent. Together the thin-clouded veins of my forearms drew a road map that was layered and unforgiving. These were the very roads of all my travels, interminably taking back to the very same beginning. A reincarnation, I thought, none the better and yet nonetheless.

I stood lean in the cool air imagining infallible intuition would take me to the unknown. My descent was endless as I fumbled through the small heatless rooms of the house, each room a velvety darkness and each room more uncertain than the next. Which did not usually feel bad. But that morning a hasty need pitted the depths of me. I really didn’t know what it was except that after I clicked on the hallway light the weak ambient bulbs hardly drew anything into focus. The lampshades midriff, the slender hips of the caned backed chair, the rocking hallway bureau with its carved inward slippers and then the turned spindles of the front stairs akimbo like adolescent legs of a hundred children waiting in line, I could not think about them nor was I about to ponder the sleepless dreams I wasn’t able to remember anyway. What I did need was to meticulously organize myself into one single unit:

One Oxford; plain white button down. As this shirt was less than brilliant, in relation to the earth tones of Uniform its humble cotton was dingy but passable. Many times it had occurred to me that a few drops of Clorox might stand us up a little but that wasn’t what a portrait photographer needed.

One Necktie; bluish with diagonal stripes of green-blue. Each stripe led a definitive downward graze to my left side, my feeling side, where there was one small clear grease stain. The oval stain was mostly unnoticeable and only really peeked out every once in a while due to my sometimes nervous tucking.

One Pair of Pants; tan straight fronts. They had good short pockets so nothing bundled down my legs and thus they made for better squatting. They fit a little longish in the heels, which allowed them to fray ever so slightly, melding me into the ground and swept up dust like sadness from the dull linoleum of school floors.

One Pair of Shoes; brown leather Timberlines. They were well worn and with three-years continual use, they flattened as they sat over night. Filling them each morning was a comfort however; their formfitting to my feet was simply the memory of warm milk.

One Sports Jacket; Humble and warm I dubbed it simply as “Uniform.” It was brown the color of the sparrow and its corduroy was in such fine ribs that from afar looked as soft as feathers. The encouragement I got from Uniform, besides its luck charm residing at the very bottom of its breast pocket, was that it had been a perfect fit. Uniform actually looked tailored, an earthen wrap snug around my shoulders with just the suggestion of peaking bones.

And last there was my Coffee Cup. Coffee Cup was a handmade ceramic coffee cup from my childhood. Though I don’t know where it had come from I knew it had been handcrafted. It was delicate and its thin index finger loop was a lady trigger. It’s artful chipping brim did not stop its travels with me during my every morning drives. And although the formaldehyde of coffee soured even after being scrubbed every morning its presence reassured me. Its warmth in my hand minded my survival as sometimes the only human touch. Its tinge of olive matched Uniform. Together our pallet noted harvest though provided a less formidable sense of expiration.

I was dressed and tunneled into the kitchen with a wedge of hallway light lead my own lurching shadow. I was following myself, allowing my shadow to take me somewhere and the leading movement drew me but nowhere. Where was I to go except to grab the kettle from the stove, run the tapwater on and snap the burner all the way up? In a moment there was the scissoring hiss from the swirl of heating element, my own cyclical routine I was reminded, my interminable everyday, I said out loud. The hundreds of dark and bitter coffee grains I scooped into the French press clouded my mind as the hot water muddied the glass into a storm river but filled the room with such surprising sweetness.

My eyes adjusted to the dim rooms, I opened the pocket doors to the front room, train-rumbling them into the old plaster walls. Their parting sifted a sandy light across the photographic equipment. It made me think that possibly these dusty discoveries were what brought them to life. The thought made me feel outside myself then and my stomach passed an apprehensive moment. I understood the stewing darkness that lay inside those boxes just as I knew the very hardwood they were constructed from and the tough lacquer paint of steel buff muffled that insecurity further still. Now they appeared hollow, held together by the silver corner jewels that made them resemble musical instrument cases. But neither woodwind nor brass would come to mind. Their dimensions were off, their shapes too obtuse. Instrumentation of this sort would be condescending, a too-stout sounding pit. But however wrong, I believed their sound would not be cacophonous but rather saccharine and sorrowful, a feral call. Animalia showed itself in their scuffs and gouges. Some marks like lashing grass illustrated a better light, they could have easily passed for having been placed in a windy meadow, energized by a predawn eminent glow. The cases also did not resemble luggage. They were too hulking, too over-built and physically too heavy. Nothing of real distance, nothing of any considerable length of stay save for that grassy appearance.

I stood between the Camera Box and Light Box and squat-lifted them both, stumbling to retrieve balance. I t was like lifting night and day, one in each hand. The left was my lighting equipment box. It was the longer box, two-feet by two-feet by four-feet and contained all of the lamps—the fill light, spot light, hair light and background light. To me it was funny to think that so much light could be generated from inside that dark old box. There was also other gaffing equipment tucked away inside, such as the thin aluminum stands for each light and the wires coiled up like snakes who guarded the two extra lamp bulbs I lovingly kept wrapped in blue tissue paper.

On my right was night, a solid square, two-feet by two-feet by two-feet and encased the solid black Z-2 medium-format camera with single barrel, one-hundred-and-eighty-millimeter lens. The Z-2 came complete with internal electronic winder and reels capable enough to withhold one hundred-feet of color bulk film. Although Camera Box was smaller, it was the heavier of the two by several pounds. That heaviness perhaps was due to its dull velvet appearance, a finish dryly absorbing all daylight.

I set the two boxes near the front stair landing, rattling of the bare-wood banister and went back for Army. Army was an actual United States Army duffle bag, circa WWII. Its worn-to-soft canvas of green-gray was stuffed to capacity but not to say seam-ripping, though one more item and I was certain it would explode into a million little pieces.

Army brought to mind the wealth-belly of a doctor’s house-call bag. A perfect sense of useful items it carried and its pregnant shape demanded patience. In volatile situations its equipment required a careful hand. Army held my collapsed heavy-duty metal tripod with locking casters and oil-filled head. There were various wires hurried inside were like the guts of a hindered man; the very thin and sinuous shutter release cable and the extra-long orange extension cord. A small box containing, “One Hundred Unbreakable Black Combs,” was stuffed inside and when opened looked a horrifying million of caterpillars, sliding over one another without care. It was my duty to tame one Unbreakable Black Comb across any bed-head or post-gym-class-head and then discard it due to head lice. I was not allowed to give them away to students anymore and they scattered on the floor near my worktable until I could collect them into the waste.

There were other things in Army that were essential like my ballpoint pens, slate tablets and self-inking numbering stamper. These items had no particular place and so they roamed free and I often lost the pens. I was constantly replenishing my pen stock. One extra canister containing the eternal ribbon of four-hundred speed bulk film was always somewhere near the bottom, sinisterly sealed with black electrical tape. But nothing was of such consequence as my trusted Minolta light meter, which resided always cupped to the nose of Army. My trusty Minolta light meter. To measure light. To collect infinity. An abundant dilemma depending so desperately on where the studio was to be erected. I was really sure where set-up would be. It would often be the same year to year like on a stage floor and suddenly change to say the janitors closet that very morning. So measuring the light was essential. An ethereal involvement where you had to think inside the camera and in that darkness, by way of glass and speed of the sliding shutter, the sour smelling film waited for its quick burn, a solution of curt popping flash and slanting sunlight through a narrow school hallway and the complacent faces of the children connected in a steady stream.

I stood a second and curled up a tiny hole with my thumb and index finger. I brought that opening close to my eye, closed it down as far as possible—a very small opening in the world to let light in. Any smaller of a hole and it would be utter darkness. Which brought me to “Houdini.” Houdini was the neatly folded into itself, magic-black film changing bag. Houdini would make its appearance in the worst possible situations. Those disastrous days of running out of film would produce the snapping out of Houdini flat on the dusty stage floor. Into a dark and stout footprint of a cathedral with its apse, nave and transcripts, its unfurling always released the crunching confusion that mounted a row of concerned brows. In that moment my arms would vanish inside the elastic light-safe armholes and a harrowing wrestle of Jacob and the angel would ensue. And despite my always assuring composure the catastrophe showed itself as awfully desperate and so all costs I avoided this dilemma. I kept a keen eye on the counter at the back of the camera and made sure to change stock at the beginning or at the end of the shooting day if it was low.

Outside in the dewy yard I set Army on top of all of the boxes inside the trunk and went back inside for Bazooka, my background screen. Bazooka was a single dart of white PVC tube, five-inches in diameter, four-feet in length with a screw-top. This tube encapsulated the noncommittal backdrop I had engineered from a high-school sixteen-millimeter movie projection screen I had found at a surplus store. But it was when I leaned around the doorframe to grab it from its usual place that something happened. When I placed my hand on the leather handle there suddenly arced a solid white in my tired eyes and, electrified, the passing froze me quite solidly. I looked up again and it was gone. I then realized it came from a framed photograph hanging on the wall, a reflection of the kitchen light. When I leaned back and made the flash charge again the silver tablet of my mind was refracted and I recalled the day that photograph was taken in vivid detail.

The school portrait season had just begun then. I remembered because I had just gotten a haircut and the roar of the wind was clear around my ears, open and metallic. There was an overwhelming scent of disturbed tomato vine. The thought of it then produced a breath so deep it was the wanting of an easy drink of rainwater. The photograph was of this very backyard, a mowing cleared away from the house and hedged by tall field of corn. The raw form against the tidy keepsake produced a sunken intrigue to the landscape. I was squinting at it and then pulled it off its tiny nail, turned it into the charging lamp blindness.

In the yard that day I pulled open the screen and sailed its glitter white across the corner of the vegetable garden. I recalled watching it shake and lock in the wind. The old house, set back deep in the picture plane is luminous with the long exposure. Dancing slightly the neatly trimmed lilacs darken a frame of the photograph but the screen in the lower third holds the composition. Its fervor is a blurred motion, a white burn I could feel as a ghost encapsulated in the thin emulsion. My quick jaunt to the house was as fleeting as the late summer poppies I could just barely see peeking out of the front lawn near the very upper left of the photograph. My young ideal misconceptions as I twisted my thirty-five-millimeter camera onto a tripod and a continuation of that desire as I firmed its legs into the tomatoes red-ripe and rot. My own legs dug deep and sure. It was then near dusk but the though of the shortening days were not encumbering. The light was still good and I took just one exposure.

Afterwards I sunk into the damp basement and found three old cans of house paint. With a three-inch sash brush, set in a soup can of turpentine, I spread a brooding gray of blues mixed with sea-storm green, much like the sky was that day. I remember the satisfaction of the finished painting and watching autumn shake that backdrop as it was engulfed within the mantis the very tail end of summer waned. There was a pining in my stomach. Everything was an easy and brilliant creation. Just expression it seemed, there was no thinking there was nothing else.

In the front room, after a time, I set the photograph back on its thin brad. I rumpled the doors closed and they shut like gates taking in my long exposure. I realized it was the last photograph I had printed and that was several years ago. I thought hard and lifted Bazooka onto my shoulder. I would not forget.

I thought about that portrait all the way to the Edgewater School. Wanting for some bark, some guttural yearning from a deep inside me, but the slippery movement was just a pinhole I could not seem to siphon anything through.

Seventy-miles of silence wavering between the lucid to the formidable as the banking roads loosened up to the rich blues and dark cool grays that slowly constituted a morning soon to be sun-filled. Chisel woods crossed the rolling hills and took on a remarkable phrasing of Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool. I whistled through my front teeth arranging as closely as I could to this pass of emerging landscape, conducted in pitch to the high drone of Red Jetta’s engine, the slit of an unclosed rear window and the clicking time of a front bushing in need of repair. My throttled notes addressed a blue stonewall shattering passed as I imagined the trumpeter’s breath my own, eschewing a harmonic and rhythmic complexity. The cool tonal pallet easily worked its way into the farmland that preyed close to the window and then departed like the sea. In my forward velocity I sometimes stumbled my solo but imagined in languid lines and purposeful, as a tribute to the maestro. The soundtrack was linked to the luminous screen in the photograph I had forgotten. Somehow it was also connected to the starkly painted fence that, built too close to the road, whittled before a whitewashed farmhouse like a lath.

I skirted that farmhouse and its neatly trimmed lawn brought me to the tenor lines of Gerry Mulligan. Because this is where movement and visual composition took an abrupt depth as the farm broke away to the far mark of outbuildings. From muddling darkness the buildings were glowing alabaster headstones making my ensemble darkly paused as well. Here a remarkably large sugar maple interrupted the sky. The field, having just been harvested, gave its shadow a soft embrace. And tethered to the heavy ballast of angled armed branches were a gaggle of sheet-tied ghosts. The wind shifted the gregarious crowd towards each other like a shake of salt. All were harnessed by their stuffed suffering heads and their crude painted-on smiles gave them menace. Yet their fraternizing was such an enticing situation; their wild swinging suggested a cocktail party that had gone through the night.

The sun was just rising then and when I looked ahead the road teed-off in front of me at an old stone wall. I slowed down quickly and the Miles score faded from my teeth. It was in that abrupt winding down into silence that I encountered the most surprising illusion. A vivid box of yellow lit up above the stone wall. It appeared to hover there in the rich dried blackberry buttresses the stone wall held back. The surfaces of pollen-bright leaves and the stiff dried arches within the box were so buttery I sat mesmerized for a moment. It was hard to take my eyes from it but when I turned around I found the sun was rising directly through an old rotting grain barn. The building’s grey boards were so concave it was to the point of pure abstracted sculpture. It’s natural slumping made a perfect valley where I imagined handfuls of barn swallows dipped to its center, followed the curve of dilapidation sharply up to leap from the high-head window where the sunlight beamed through.
As if it could not get any more sensational I turned back and looked at the hovering box. In the slight wind the dried leaves shook with an explosive energy and then wiped their brilliant hue into cream. Then an old yellow school bus crossed through this blissful illusion and the floating box laid its fiery patch directly, if not precisely, into each halved bus window. And every child looked down at me in Red Jetta as if projected from the lens of the collapsed grain barn. The angelic filmstrip hovered as autumn squeezed into bullion of not only the brilliant dying leaves and the stiff blackberry thistle but also the listing young faces, clear-eyed, intrinsic and in utter silence.

When there was an abrupt grinding of the gearbox followed by a sighing hiss the bus was gone but left in its hulking wake the sweet butter of feverous levitation and an intangible sense of change. It said something gracious and earthy was to come and linger.