New Work by Robert Sparrow Jones, A Conversation by Leigh Glenn

When I first saw paintings by Robert Sparrow Jones at Longview Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2008, I was struck by what felt like a sense of unfinishedness in his work. It intrigued me, because, coupled with the people, the scenes, the qualities of a palette that utilized various tints and shades of ochre and lime green to blue-greens that ranged from aqua to teal, I felt like I was being invited to consider the story that was paused before me: Who were these people? What were they doing? What came before this? What would come next?

The exteriors—the woods, the hills, the grasses, the trees—felt safer than the interiors, more at liberty to express themselves, with the place as much a character and having as much—or maybe even more of—a voice as the people.

And there was a feeling of commonweal—as if Jones had tapped into a collective dream world, but one where I wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or some actuality that had taken on the mantle of a dream to the point where I could no longer distinguish between the two. And in that breach of unknowing, I felt both joy and sadness, in that way a memory can generate happiness when you re-call it and sadness when you know the moment is gone, never to be re-lived.

I’ve been following Jones’s work ever since, seeing the evolution of richness of blues and greens that reminds me of many of Chiura Obata’s color woodblock prints as well as a deepening fusion between people and place. By themselves, neither would stand alone, not the people, not the landscapes, not the water.

A native of northeastern Pennsylvania and a 2005 graduate of the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA, Jones left Baltimore to continue pursuing teaching. He has spent time in Spain, lived in Athens, Georgia, and lived again on the water near Miami. From there, he spent time in Michigan before returning to Seattle, where he feels most at home, near the Ballard Locks, which is where his studio is. Part-time gigs led to full-time work with Dale Chihuly’s organization, where he builds things, travels to install pieces and spends time with other artists.

A show of his new work, The Uncertain Landscape, opens Friday, July 15 at Jordan Faye Contemporary. I interviewed Jones to better understand his artistic origins and influences as well as the impetus behind his work.

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How did you get into painting?

I started painting when I was out here for the first time—in the late 1990s. I moved out here, I live in a warehouse space. It was really cheap and it afforded me the practice of trying out a bunch of painting. I was able to just do it and be terrible at it until I stumbled into it and found something that matched my ideas—the colors to get an emotive quality. I was trained in photography as an undergrad. I was always afraid of painting, because in art school, painters were at the apex, you had to know the professor to get in, it seemed cliquey, so I never took a painting class.

I had a set of paints—Windsor & Newtons—my aunt gave to me and I carried them around, from place to place, and never used them until I was out of school, mixed them up, put brush to canvas—and everything I wanted in art came together in one place: photography (it was about the picture and the composition); storytelling (making up and manipulating images); the physicality of working with material, printmaking and drawing. And it had this new thing and that was color. It had this immediate, emotive power. When I look back at those paintings, they’re really terrible. They look like sepia-toned photographs…but they still have that emotive quality, too.

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So you left Seattle to study painting and that’s how you ended up in Baltimore?

I’d been out here for 10 years. Even though I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania and we went to the Jersey Shore every summer, I’d never been to Baltimore—maybe passed through. When I got accepted [at MICA], I packed up all my stuff, drove across the country with my dog in a car with no air-conditioning and a gallon of water I’d pour on her.

I was thinking to myself, “What did I just do? I just left this verdant, mountainous countryside for this hard-edged city? I don’t know if I did the right thing.” I was so naive. I didn’t have a place to live yet. I camped out by the Patapsco River for a week. It was summer, it was intense. And then I found a place in Bolton Hill. I have a soft spot for Baltimore in my soul. I ended up loving it.

I was excited to work with Grace Hartigan and I was scared to death because I didn’t know anything about painting. I’d been doing research on my own about the history of painting. I really enjoy history. I did my first painting using the technique of the Old Masters—underpainting and glazing. When I had my first critique with Grace, she looked at the painting and kind of screwed her eyes up at it and looked at me. Then she looked at the painting and then back at me.

She asked me, “Do you paint like this?”

I said, “Well, no, but I’m trying…”

“Don’t paint like that,” she told me. “I picked you for your work. Paint how you paint. Wipe it all off.”

So I wiped it all off and started over and continued in the vein I’d been working in, developing a color theory of my own.

Grace was nurturing—she was very direct. I don’t want to say nurturing; she was to a certain extent. She knew painting, she knew color, and she would tell you directly whether she’d like something or not like something. That was very helpful to have that truth be told. I’d say she helped me most with developing that sense of expression and color, but was also nurturing this pursuit of a vision of narrative storytelling.

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Who—and what—influences your work?

For me, the images come from many different sources, so it’s tough to say. They often come from reading and the other side of that is just experiencing nature. For many years, I have also worked with nature directly and consider myself to be a bit of a visionary horticulturist. I have this experience with nature from growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania—I still get that.

In my family, we are all gardeners. Fourth of July I spent digging up the lawn for a garden. Every place I have moved, I inherently dug up the lawn. Color, texture, movement, space, time, and scent—the elements of the natural world mirror my practice as a painter. My entire career as a visual artist has been a meditation on connecting the two. Well beyond a pastime, nature is a way of life for me. It is a library and a teacher. And to be in the garden, whether walking, observing, or with my arms caked to the elbows with soil, is to be part of the sublimity I am attempting to access while I paint.

Nature also connects directly to my painting because it embodies many passages of time; when I am walking in it I feel co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial. I have to be part of digging in the dirt, so that influences the imagery in my paintings. I don’t always think that the paintings are environmental, but they become that sometimes and I can’t help that.

Other kinds of art also inspire me: sound and video art or movies. Fiber, of course. Ethnographic museum pieces, kinetic art or expressive materials, which is strange because when I come back to it, [my work] seems to involve people and places.

In terms of lineage, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, Manet… Andrew Wyeth and the Wyeths. Among the artists working today, I include Julie Heffernan, Susanna Coffey, Benjamin Duke—who was a fellow student—Raoul Middleman, Vincent Desiderio, and Kerry James Marshall—he’s just wonderful. A lot of these people came down to Baltimore and came to my studio and I got to talk with them. It was an amazing experience.

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How do your new paintings mark another turn of the wheel in your development?

To me, they’re more protean, more developing. There’s more movement in them—not that people are moving, but the materials and ideas are more moving. They still are affected by place and they still have a narrative. But they seem to be more open to change and have this energy that seems more open. I don’t look to figurative painting as so solid of a thing. I try to show something open-ended, because I’m so interested in what’s going on.

Can you talk about that interest—what’s happening for you?

It’s like when you’re walking down the street and you hear a bit of conversation. I wonder, “What was that?” It’s so interesting out of context—it hangs in the air and I bring my own thing to it. Or, if I’m driving in the car and passing something and just glance over, maybe between two houses and children are playing the yard and they did something amazing. I’m wondering: “What was that? What happened?” Those moments really haunt me. I feel really attuned, I’m really sensitive to those kinds of moments and it’s my job to be open—I have a responsibility to take it and try to show people a little bit of what’s there—the ephemerality of what I witnessed.

Those moments—I definitely try to remember them. I write them down, when I have my book. My sketchbook is usually filled with writing, more than with sketches. But when the painting arrives and it starts to develop…it’s never a direct translation of the moment. When I’m about to start making two or three paintings and getting into that mode, I start to prepare a surface and when I’m making the size, I go back to those journals, I read through them, instead of looking at them: “Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s that feeling.”

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In your work, water often appears as an integral theme. Even the land feels watery. In the different places you’ve lived, how does water make itself known to you and how are you trying to converse with water in your work?

It’s totally subconscious, but I’m just calmed by it, just knowing it’s there. I like to visit it as much as I can. I don’t know why. Growing up, we were always knee-deep in rivers and ponds, catching frogs and fishing. But it’s different now. Pennsylvania is landlocked, so I don’t know if it comes from my childhood or from something inside me. In Seattle, I’m calmed by it the same as I was in Baltimore. It contains the essence of nature and, I don’t know—a sublime quality. It’s both frightening and it’s beautiful at the same time.

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Since you’ve left Baltimore, it seems like barely a month passes that water isn’t in the news—from the Kingston dam coal fly ash breach, the BP blowout, Fukushima, ruptured oil pipelines, chemical spills, Brazil’s Fundao dam break, and algal blooms. What, if any, bearing do these kinds of things have on your work?

It does [have bearing]. I’m not an activist, but my heart so strongly believes in protecting water and I sign petitions when I can. When I was a child, the forests around my house were completely devastated to nothing. They would level these mountains into a flat, black silt, it was terrible. It took years for it to grow back. Even as a child, I knew that was wrong. When I was growing up, we would camp all the time. We would find places and find garbage and try to tidy up.

When I think about it, I like to think of myself as an optimist. With optimism, people tend to think of that person as foolishly blind. That, I am not. It’s such a big, terrible issue, I can’t solve it. Back then, that was for coal. Now, they’re fracking. Who knows the implications? When I think of my paintings, I feel like they’re a reaction against that, but I don’t think they’re going to change the world. But it’s my own way of dealing with it. People ask me if they’re a protest. I’m not that smart to take on something so big, but I can’t help it, it just comes out like that—it’s part of who I am and what I believe in.

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Why are our landscapes now so uncertain—is that peculiar to our time?

It’s so urgent—I feel it’s part of our time. But it’s been around forever—the Hudson Bay, growing up, and the Chesapeake, they’re just polluted. Finding lakes that are polluted. It’s not just part of my time, but knowing that it’s an issue for the next generation—I really feel it. It’s important. I want people to feel it.

How high is Sparrow flying now?

Very high! Painting is a passage for me. If I’m feeling adrift or melancholy, it has a hope to it. It’s external from reality, but it has everything to do with my internal states of just being. So when I’m painting, I’m going through it—it’s the greatest feeling. I just sent off all my paintings to Jordan. I have an exhibit in town showing older work.

Right now, my studio is empty. It is the weirdest feeling. On the one hand, it’s a relief to have everything done and out, but it just feels like all those paintings—you spend so much time with them, they’re like people. You send them off and wonder, “Where are all my people?” I’ve got to get started on something straight away. It’s like Hemingway said, you have to stop a little before, so there’s a little left, a little to begin with the next time. That’s the truth.

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Leigh Glenn is a freelance writer/editor, herbalist and permaculture practitioner in Annapolis. She enjoys writing about food, farming and fiber arts and is a part-time “hooker”—of rugs. She has an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason and is working on a memoir.