Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Coast-to-coast artist settles in Athens

Admittedly, Athens is a town of learning and music.

Art is considered in the abstract, ‘his or her songwriting is an art’ or ‘he has mastered the art of playing guitar.’ But art, in the traditional sense and as a scene – beyond the halls of Lamar Dodd – is growing, and to know where it’s headed look no further than T-W-O, This Way Out, gallery’s current exhibition featuring paintings by Robert Sparrow Jones.

“[T-W-O] is a new thing and we’re feeling it out, keeping it slow,” Jones said. “On opening night it was crowded. It’s nice to see people looking at art as a thing to do and it’s nice to see it happen outside of the UGA galleries.”

Jones, a relative newcomer to Athens, is a teacher by day and an artist by trade.

But before he could teach he had to learn, and before he could learn he had to live, and in order to live he needed a place to do so.

Jones is from Jermyn, a town north of Scranton in rural Pennsylvania.

“I was able to be in the woods all the time building tree houses,” Jones said. “That sense of strength and fragility of nature, even the idea of a tree fort or a hut is fragile.”

Jones’ appreciation of fragility is more an understanding of nuance, of details. Not surprisingly, he was first drawn to film as a creative outlet.

“When I picked up my first camera I was in high school,” Jones said. “I wanted to be a filmmaker, creating stories and narrative, but the camera, well, it also helped me towards understanding how to design a picture on a plane.”

Jones went on to study at Kutztown University, expanding his work from writing and photography to printmaking and later painting, or ‘”from the mechanical to the physical,” he said.

“Going to college was beneficial and I’m still interested in writing and ecology. When I came to painting it was the summation of everything but with one extra thing: color,” Jones said. “Kutztown has a good art department and for an artist it’s a really cool place. It’s a place where artists remain and it’s still kind of a magical place.”

But Jones didn’t remain, instead he moved west, far west, to Seattle.

“The land of milk and honey,” he said. “I’d just started painting and people were buying art and a lot of young people were buying art – the dot com boom. I lived in a warehouse in downtown Seattle, lived cheaply and illegally a little bit. But it was the cultivation of [my] painting.”

Jones, though, hadn’t given up filmmaking. In fact, his work in that medium ended up opening a few doors.

“I was commissioned to make a documentary on Red Kelly, a jazz musician,” Jones said. “He lived in Tacoma and had opened for [Frank] Sinatra and Elvis [Presley]. People like Tony Bennett would stop by to see him on their way through.”

Around the same time, Jones started teaching at community colleges on the side.

“I really liked it, but if I wanted to teach I needed an M.F.A.,” he said.

And so Jones went to Baltimore and to the Maryland Institute College of Art – MICA.

“Baltimore was a hard place to leave, but I didn’t know that when I got there” he said. “I drove across the country with my old Saab, no air conditioning and in the summer. I came into Baltimore from the west side, just pure devastation. It is where ‘The Wire’ shot, and I thought, ‘I just left beautiful Washington state for this?”
But Baltimore surprised him, welcomed him even.

“It’s still a fun, viable place for artists. It’s the last city on the East coast to live on the cheap,” Jones said.

The community of Baltimore’s creative scene and of MICA, specifically its people, intrigued Jones. One person in particular became an influence and a friend.

“Grace Hartigan, she was the last living abstract artist,” Jones said. “She knew [Elaine] de Kooning and [Jackson] Pollock and was good friends with Frank O’Hara the poet. She’s so interesting, and so crass.”

After completing his degree, Jones taught at both MICA and Towson University.

“I’d teach four or five classes at each. It was OK money but it became too tough to do after a while,” he said.

So Jones looked elsewhere, applying to schools and eventually accepting at position at Piedmont College in Demorest.

“I moved right to Demorest and it was quite the eye opener,” he said. “After living in cities for 20 years there’s nothing out there. I lived near water for 15 years and now I’m landlocked, I’m thinking, ‘Where’s my ocean?’”

Now Jones, like T-W-O, calls Athens home.

“I love it. In high school of course I loved R.E.M. and I actually had this T-shirt, the Life’s Rich Pageant tour, and on the back it had a bird’s eye view of Athens,” he said. “Athens has a mystique about it, and some legends to it.”

But for an artist who’s spanned the coasts, where or what to next?

“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” Jones said. “It can be frustrating but it keeps me on my toes.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Cast Adrift

Troubled Like the Restless Sea: Entering the This Way Out (T-W-O) Gallery is a bit like going down the rabbit hole. The gallery, situated in the hodge-podge strip mall above Ben’s Bikes, looks like a parlor in a historic home. Wood floors, a small table arranged between two welcoming arm chairs and a fireplace are unexpected in a building that shares a roof with a tacky adult novelty shop, but inside are paintings that similarly evoke a dreamlike state. Robert Sparrow Jones large-scale oil paintings share with the Romantic masters a sense of grandeur and the sublime.

The figures in these richly hued paintings inhabit land and seascapes or empty houses and fields. The subjects appear like a half-remembered dream or the record of a stranger’s memory in a found photograph; you have some clues as to what is going on, but the more you look, the more mysterious it becomes. Jones studied with Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan during his MFA work in Baltimore, and this connection appears in the splashes and drips that texture the canvas beneath the high-gloss surface, giving the scenes an even greater sense of movement and drama. His background also includes creative writing and photography; both disciplines are revealed in the way he sets up enigmatic narrative snapshots within his compositions.

My favorite paintings are the seascapes, where a blue-green ocean envelops and threatens to consume curious collections of figures adrift in crowded boats. “Shelf-Cloud” (2010) and “Maelstrom” (2010) appear almost as pendants, the former a picture of a boating party embarking on some unknown voyage, the latter a portrait of a similar gathering of men and women experiencing rough waters as their boat is tossed on frothy waves. Elsewhere, Jones paints figures in rural landscapes in radiant gold and red. Difficult to nail down to time or place, these, too, seem part of an in-between space. The detail with which Jones paints his subjects’ varied expressions allows the viewer to make imaginative leaps in thinking about what is happening in the painting, something you may still contemplate long after you have left the gallery. T-W-O is open by appointment and from 6–8 p.m. daily, Mar. 10–20.

by Caroline Barratt