Interview with Rachel Jones

Richard Froude talks to artist Rachel Jones about accessibility in both visual and literary arts.

Artist Rachel Jones

In February 2018, I talked to Portland, OR based artist Rachel Jones about the issues we felt with accessibility in both visual and literary arts, and in addition how it might be possible to express these ideas in the art itself rather than via the particular constraints of an artist’s statement. So we talked more, and wrote it down. This is the conversation:

Richard Froude: Is accessibility important to you, in both your work and that of others?

Rachel Jones: I think so, yes. I am drawn to things that explore human experience or emotion. My work is very often an object or subject that is centrally placed within a flat space. I think the focus on that one object or subject is calming to me. Life, in general, feels very hectic. I am anxious and in my head a lot, stressing over this and that, and being obsessive. I will focus on one thing and play it over and over to an exhaustive level. Focusing on one thing within my art, without distraction and attempting to capture what is unique or special to the object or person, whether it be through the mark making, a facial expression, color, etc., is very important. 

My education helped me develop and grow as an artist and this aided in my art becoming more accessible. I think that’s true. At least for me I feel that I’m now capable of creating art that I like and is true to what I am trying to convey. Before school, my reliance on certain techniques were due to an underdeveloped practice and therefore my art all looked the same whether I wanted it to or not. During this period I felt like I was being held hostage by my anxiety and inability to explore content in a sophisticated manner. 

Some of my favorite artists now, were totally inaccessible to me when I first discovered them. Two that come to mind are Philip Guston and Cindy Sherman. I remember seeing a photograph of Cindy Sherman’s in high school and I just could not figure out what I was looking at or how to feel about it. It looked like a film still and I remember my mind just drawing a blank as to how to categorize it as an art form. Today, her work resonates and inspires me. Sherman’s work pretty much always includes herself, dressed up in some way, dependent on the theme (which is often a bit disturbing), and is a portrait or slice of life style photograph. The consistency in format makes her work accessible to me and the ways in which her themes and treatment of the figure varies, keep me engaged and interested.

RF:  What does accessibility mean to you?

RJ: Being able to relate a piece of work in some capacity and being inspired by that work. Which means as I grow and change, hopefully what I have access to grows and changes. That doesn’t mean that the art needs to be more complicated (concept wise I suppose). Work that seems more like a regurgitation of the past with no presence of the artist’s unique perspective, I find mostly inaccessible. I love seeing an artist’s nod to the past or present, mixed with a healthy dose of something that is specific to the human creating the work. Seeing the individual’s perspective is what keeps things interesting and moving forward. I see a lot of work that feels stagnant and stuck in the past. It makes me feel angrier than it should.

I mentioned before, I’m drawn to work that speaks to human emotions and experience. I like to feel as though I’m not alone in my emotional state of being. I also like to feel inspired and hopeful. Art that inspires the mind, challenges the mind, and unites us as human beings – this is the art that I like and is accessible. 

RF: I hear you in wanting to not be alone in an emotional state of being, and I’m interested in what you say about how access grows and changes with us, maybe with our emotional states, too. Are there artists (or styles etc.) other than Guston and Sherman with whom your relationships have changed over the years? I am thinking maybe of things you felt a deep connection to in the past that now feel less important?

RJ: Some of the Artists I first loved were Egon Schiele, Toulouse-Lautrec (more of his sketches & posters), and Ralph Steadman. I was drawn to the graphic (heavy lines, flat surfaces) element of the work but also the dark subject matter. I think a lot of people find work executed in this format accessible. I’m not sure why. Equivalent to say, a pop song?  Anyways, my relationship with these artists have changed and I’m not as inspired or drawn to their work. Except Toulouse-Lautrec. I still very much love his paintings. When I look at Schiele’s and Steadman’s work now it all kind of looks the same. Each piece explores the same kind of subject in the same kind of way. I know that a lot of artists work like this. They find their niche, and that’s why people love them – for that particular thing they do so well. I’m not sure I like a “one trick pony” kind of artist. BUT, when I first started taking art seriously, and my scope of the art world was still pretty small, these artists were revolutionary to me. They explored the ugly underbelly of society and did so in a way that I found beautiful and compelling. Even as I’m writing this I’m thinking about how inspired I felt back then and that’s making me feel inspired to go look at these artists’ work! Ridiculous.

All that being said, I totally can’t say that I don’t love a “one trick pony” kind of artist. I mean, I just wrote about Cindy Sherman and how she’s basically been working in the same format her whole career! 

RF: I notice myself carrying around ideas from books I read when I was much younger and feel inspired to go back to them, then when I do I find passages that fall way short of my memory of them, and that just by carrying the idea around for so many years I have given it its own language – it has changed and grown without me realizing. You talked earlier about your work being often an object or subject centrally placed within a flat space, but I see huge variation in this when looking through your work, to the extent that it feels like much more than “one trick.” Are there things you do deliberately to ensure you are always adding new tricks, or that your work is always evolving? Does it happen without you realizing?

RJ: I’ve got a whole new batch of ink & watercolor drawings I’ve done since we’ve started this dialogue. It’s funny, I think I’ve turned to art recently because I’m avoiding the conversation about it. Like I’ve said, I really don’t like talking about it, but look how productive I have become when I start talking and thinking about it in new ways? Hmmmmmmm.

I feel like I have oppositional disorder in regards to working in a similar fashion. I also feel constantly overwhelmed with inspiration! I definitely make a conscious effort to create work that is different, perhaps not in composition but in application, materials and subject matter. It helps to seek out artists that I haven’t seen or heard of. Recently I went through my old art books and cut out pieces that I liked and that I thought would push me to work in different ways. Surrounding myself with images, knickknacks and such in the studio, helps keep my brain engaged and inspired.

For my last set of ink & watercolor drawings/paintings I was thinking about different types of women, which turned into thinking about women-animal hybrids? Everyone loves animals! No, I don’t know where the animal part came from to be honest.

I’m not sure how successful I was, but I was attempting to create work where each figure had a different set of features, or at least varied enough to create a diverse group of drawings. I’ve recognized my patterns in creating figures with certain eyes, noses, mouths –  all being kind of the same, how boring and limiting! It’s a pretty simple idea, but if I create a character that has say, curly hair, perhaps a person with curly hair relates to that piece a bit more, and is therefore more accessible to them? I don’t want to be obnoxious or force anything – just be more aware of my patterns.

Rachel Jones is a Portland Oregon based artist. She holds a BFA in Painting from Pacific Northwest College of Art. Since graduating in 2007, Rachel has been working in a variety of media. The style of work varies, but the constant thread throughout is portraiture.

Richard Froude is a writer and physician in Denver, Colorado. His most recent book Your Love Alone Is Not Enough (A Novel in Ruins) was published in November 2018 by Subito Press. Recent writing can be found in the Denver Quarterly, PageBoy, and online at the Florida Review.