Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Earl Jones: A Revolutionary Who Just Wants to Change the World

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Adecade ago, painter Earl Jones told this writer he liked to focus on “important subjects: mountains and women.” Recently he explained the quote: now-deceased Utah Supreme Court Justice I. Daniel Stewart attended a show of his and asked, “How come you [just] paint landscapes and nude women?” Jones replied, “I love to paint mountains, and there’s only one thing more beautiful than a mountain.” The justice responded, “Well said.”

Another show of Jones’ signature mountains and women opens October 17 at Phillips Gallery along with sculpture by Cordell Taylor. It will be partially a retrospective and partly an exhibit of Jones’ new work. Some pieces are quite singular — paintings “we’ve just kind of kept in the family and decided that we have more than we really need,” says the artist.

Jones’ lovely, unabashed nudes (sometimes he delicately sculpts them in bronze) haven’t always been so readily accepted. In the very early1960s, the annual art department student show was in the University of Utah Union, where now-sought-after artists Denis Phillips and Tony Smith hung their work alongside Jones’ for what became a notorious exhibition.

As Tony Smith recalls it, President A. Ray Olpin’s wife had a luncheon at the building one Saturday “and some of the ladies took offense at several of the nude paintings from Alvin Gittins’ figure-painting class. So the president had the show taken down,” Smith writes in an email.  “Alvin gets upset, saying, ‘How can I teach this stuff, and not have it acceptable to be shown in public?’ We get all incensed and make signs and picket the Park Building decrying CENSORSHIP. A lotta press. Jim Haseltine [director of the Salt Lake Art Center, then located at Finch Lane] hangs the paintings, to record crowds, and Earl, Denis, Steve Beck and I kinda get carried away with the thought that we are Revolutionaries and later founded the local chapter of the Peace and Freedom Party against the Vietnam War and, among other things, ran Eldridge Cleaver for president.”

That’s what artists were up to “back in the day.”

After graduating, then training at the Art Students League in New York with figure painter Joseph Hirsch and doing some traveling in Europe, Jones entered the U’s graduate program and taught drawing and painting classes at Finch Lane. He earned a master’s degree and became a full-time faculty member at the U from about 1962 until the roof caved in on him seven years later. He had been a very visible campus leader in the effort against the Vietnam War and led protests opposing the university’s research in chemical and biological warfare. Denied tenure (he says it was the best thing that could have happened to him) he struck out on his own, teaching privately in his studio. It wasn’t easy – Jill B. Jones, his wife now of 55 years (they met at a Sigma Nu fraternity party – Jones, Smith, Beck and the late College of Fine Arts Dean Robert Olpin were all members), worked to support the family until he could “get some momentum going,” putting off obtaining her Ph.D. in social work from Bryn Mawr until his career was well established.

Jones, 77, still lives and works in Salt Lake City in the one-time Phillips gas station that now has been extensively remodeled. Though he tired of teaching after 35 years, until recently former students and colleagues would drop in weekly for a sort of life-drawing soiree. Everyone chipped in five bucks for a live model who posed on a mechanic’s hoist which, in an earlier life, elevated vehicles in need of repair – it has become an Earl Jones legend.

Although he says he doesn’t work much these days, Jones prefers to paint on-site, something he likes to do with his old friend Denis Phillips. “There’s an energy that happens when you paint on location – it’s the urgency that produces spontaneity,” he says. “Outdoors with the breeze going, the light changing, the bugs biting, there are a thousand distractions that create an urgent situation. You’ve got to get these things down before it changes.”

There is a decided abstraction evident in his realism and an intentional strength to the simplicity in the composition of his pictures. Jones first visually frames the portion of a landscape he wants to paint and sketches major features with his brush. Occasionally he will leave the outline to set off a rock or tree, making it visually pop. He lays down a thin, often transparent layer of paint (sometimes allowing the texture of his canvas to show through), a technique that gives his pictures a pleasing luminescence. His landscapes seem to gather light and then reflect it; they are best seen spotlighted, as Jones demonstrates on his own walls.

The open-space living area of his home is sparsely furnished with old family pieces, including his great-grandmother’s bed graced by the richly hued nude hanging beside it. He mentions that for 20 years he raised homing pigeons on the top floor, something he enjoyed as a boy, but allergies caused him to give the birds to a neighbor in the days leading up to our interview.  In the dining area, Jones shows off elaborate cupboard doors that he carved himself in the style of Nicolai Fechin, a favorite artist who lived in Taos. Artwork abounds — by the artist, his three talented children, and by a few Utah painters including Ed Maryon and former Jones’ student Dan Baxter. Downstairs, just outside the studio, there is a 1990 calendar page from the old Cosmic Aeroplane with art by daughter Sarah. Elsewhere, silky paint bedecks an early Chevy pickup truck, 1955 (“the year I graduated from high school,” Jones remarks). The artist borrowed $400 to buy it 48 years ago and has been restoring it for the past 15.

He also has been busy building a cabin on family land near Malad, Idaho. “I found an old log house from nearby that had been torn down, but all the logs had been numbered so you could put them back in the same order  . . . I’m going to do some gardening up there – I’m really interested in organic gardening.” Jones added a front porch and a second-story studio and paints there whenever he can get away. He calls the area a junkyard, with old school buses and abandoned cars strewn about the land, but he includes those in his paintings with the breathtaking Great Basin mountain range rising behind. At least one of these works will be in the Phillips show.

A fifth-generation Utahn, Jones grew up in Ogden where he had a “pretty good” high school art teacher but says “generally my consciousness was that of a country hick. When I went to the university I was culturally disabled and undeveloped  . . . I needed an education and I suffered from provinciality and I knew it.”

He appreciated Alvin Gittins and Doug Snow and other professors, but thought LeConte Stewart “was like an old fuddy duddy. He’d traveled around Davis County and Weber County and Morgan County painting stuff that I grew up with. It made me nervous to look at LeConte Stewart – obviously it was well painted but it just didn’t have the fire or the energy that I was looking for and it took me a long time because I was trying to overcome my provinciality – I didn’t want to know that I was from Weber County, I wanted to transcend that. I got out of there as quickly as I could after I graduated from high school . . . and it wasn’t until I came back and realized what a gem he was because he took the beauties of the scenes and the objects and the communities of my ancestors and my family and made it into significant art.

“LeConte overcame his provinciality by leaving Salt Lake, he went to Chicago, he went to New York when he was really young, and he came back with a full understanding and appreciation of his own roots. So LeConte was painting my roots and that’s what was making me so nervous. Because I wasn’t mature enough or developed enough to recognize the value of my own roots. That was an enormously liberating discovery — LeConte was telling me about my roots . . . So I became very interested in genealogy and history and LeConte Stewart was undoubtedly the best and most important artist ever to come out of Utah at least during this period.”

A past revolutionary, Jones still wants to change the world. His main issue is the environment. Many of his paintings portray what he calls “the edges,” places where the cultivated, inhabited landscape of man “meets the landscape where man isn’t.” He won’t paint condo projects, instead focusing on elements in the landscape he says have legitimacy there: farmhouses, fences, barns. But he has some guilt about “looking the other way.” As he told Will South in Southwest Art in 1987, “It’s difficult for me to turn my back on some great blight on the land in order to pick out some more agreeable scene across the road. Is it irresponsible for me to do that? Am I only pandering to people who want nice pictures? The truth is I want nice pictures! I have to keep alive my excitement for the way things could be. Better harmony between man and nature shouldn’t be that difficult. . . . Each picture can become a metaphor for hope.”

Jones is a dazzling conversationalist who can begin by saying that LeConte Stewart couldn’t handle greens, “was almost paralyzed by the greenness of things,” move on to Josef Albers and ripe tomatoes, Einstein, Karl Marx, the Greeks, the Catholic Church, original sin, political conservatism, situational ethics, and then tie it all neatly together with a statement on absolute color and relativity.

Sometimes, the very best thing is to just listen to what he has to say.

“I used to tell my students when you’re doing landscape painting what you have to do is go out and drive around or walk around until you find the right attitude. If you find it you can make a painting out of anything. It’s not finding the right subject; it’s finding the right attitude. Because once you get into recognizing the possibility of what you’re seeing, there are things all around you. I have a hard time getting started sometimes because I’m looking for something far too perfect. But once I get started painting I realize that, God, I could paint that over there, I could paint that over there, I could paint that over there.

“I remember a friend of mine saying you might look at a forest and see the green and the purple and the shapes and patterns but a capitalist sees only lumber. We’re all highly infected with that perspective. It’s alienating and blinding, insensitive and vulgar. And so for me going out painting is an exercise in trying to overcome what I call ‘ordinary consciousness.’ Ordinary consciousness can blind you to the world’s beautiful magnificence, variety and possibility. So I think in a way we’re all crazy. Our culture is crazy. And painting is at least a momentary opportunity to overcome that.”

He adds: “I’m anti-capitalist, have been since I was about 30. Our culture is finally waking up to that. You know that [climate crisis] demonstration in New York the other day? That’s the problem. All they can see is lumber. And the only way they know how to defend their lumber is with war. I hope I live long enough to see some changes.”

Let’s hope we all do.

Earl Jones & Cordell Taylor will be at Phillips Gallery, 444 E. 200 South,  October 17 – November 14, with an opening reception October 17, 6-9 pm.

A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She also worked for Salt Lake City Weekly and has written for such publications as Utah Business Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine.

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