San Francisco, October 1992
“I don't have many words about my work. It just comes," Jones said softly. But as we advanced in an open-ended conversation in her studio overlooking the Black Hills of Contra Costa County, the words came freely. “My work's not conceptual, even though there is an idea there. it comes from an inner source, and the idea is always being re-formed. It's a constant process, always changing; so it's a surprise at the end.”
Even as a child Jones made art, demonstrating a precocious talent for realistic visual representation by making sophisticated portraits of people and drawings from nature. Even now, her love of the lush vegetation of her garden ties her to the earth and its mysteries. At Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge Jones majored in fine arts. During her final years at LSU, however, she became impatient with traditional representation and began to experiment, using color and form abstractly for expressive purposes. “One day, our instructor Larry Camp took the class to a construction site on campus,” Jones recalled, “but instead of drawing realistically I focused on forms and colors. The work looked rough, but that's just how I wanted it to be. Back in class I hid those renderings under realistic ones. Then, during the critique, Larry said, ‘The best work in the class isn't up.’ He pulled out my new work and showed the class. I felt liberated, and that's how I've felt about my work ever since. It frees me.”
As a young artist in the 1970s, Jones became interested in the work of New York painter Alice Neel, who was just then beginning to receive attention for her expressionist portraits. Jones also felt drawn to the lyrically abstract natural forms of Georgia O'Keeffe and the work of Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. While becoming acquainted with these and other artistic influences, Jones focused on developing an independent vision. At different times, and unknowingly, she made works with resemblances to Frank Stella's Protractor Series and to Vasili Kandinsky's small gouaches of colorful abstractions in black fields.
Her openness to flowing with her creative instincts predisposed Jones to the teachings of Swiss psychologist/psychiatrist Carl Jung. She felt no apprehensions about responding to his insights concerning archetypes and the collective unconscious. “Most of us don't tap into the collective unconscious,” she said.“Children do and artists do, but many people are afraid of it. Its principal significance for me is that it provides a grounding. It grounds and connects. And the symbols I use mirror those connections. Those symbols are deeply personal, but, coming out of the unconscious, they're also universal. They mirror the same forces that live in all of us. “I don't have a conscious goal in my work,” Jones continued. “I just know I'm driven to it. But I have a broad humanitarian goal; I want my work to reach people. I'm so glad to have my work! It enhances my life. It gives me meaning and hope. And angst, too, because things can go wrong in a painting. The process itself is a struggle. It's just like the fullness of life, the richness of life.”
For Jones that fullness has included tragedy. The Firestorm of 1991 in the Oakland Hills destroyed all of the works in her home and studio. She was able only to collect her slides before fleeing with her husband and daughter. The loss of her work created a sense of despair. She felt a need to surround herself with her work, to reconstruct her past. Whenever possible she bought back paintings that had been sold to collectors. From her slides she had prints made for scrapbooks as records of decades of work. The Firestorm and the escape from it remain vivid experiences in her memory, but now they have been absorbed into the fullness of her life and work.
Jones continues using her favorite medium, gouache—a water medium—on paper. She likes the feel of it as it moves from the brush to the paper. And she likes the brilliance and depth of its colors. “The technical concerns are such a challenge,” she said. “I form a relationship with the materials. It's like we're trying to work together to make this thing that can live by itself. That can separate. It's like, if I can't get it to work, then I can't let it go. And that demands patience. I just keep working with it until it's ready. Now I'm working with mixed materials. It's as if the materials are there to be used in new ways to help me move beyond technical ability to express something personal.”
That something is rooted in her life—most recently the devastating firestorm—and her studies of Jung and cross-cultural spirituality. In her works Jones provides half of an encounter. The viewer provides the other half. From Jones's perspective, every work lives fully when it excites a response in a viewer. A viewer looks at her paintings, and they look back. What does the viewer see? Most often a brilliantly colored group of abstract organic forms on a black field. The field can represent infinity, eternity, the unconscious. As color, it provides a strong complement to Jones's assertive, evocative, dazzling forms. She works with a restricted visual vocabulary borrowed form nature—birds, snakes, turtles, flowers, mollusks, briars, crustaceans, dragonflies and other insects, lizards, leaves, fish, the planets, and many sinuous plant forms. Jones's work is physically seductive and psychically charged. Some of her works have evocative titles, such as One in a Thousand Make It, Memorial to a Catfish. Cradled by the Ocean," or "The Mother of the World Lives in the Sea." Often a stylized vessel form appears, dominating the composition and enclosing other forms, most notably an orb representing the self. Outside the vessel floats another orb representing a guiding spirit. Occasionally there are graphic representations, as in works from the "Firestorm Series" of 1992, where small houses and burned tree trunks appear.
Jones's work derives from her life and evolves with it. For example, after the Firestorm of 1991, she made works using an "Escape Image." In her more recent "Root Series" are found symbolic representations of the core or essence of the self. Images generated by the fire experience convey simultaneously a sense of entrapment and of escape. Sometimes, the artist reminds us, it feels good to be enclosed. In giving pleasure to viewers eyes through her works, Joell Jones also instructs their souls.
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