Wayson R. Jones is just coming off an artist residency at Montgomery College in Maryland, when we spoke he was readying himself to return to his home studio in Brentwood, MD. Located in the Gateway Arts District, right outside Washington DC, Brentwood has offered Jones, a self taught painter, a supportive creative community full of peers and friends. Jones has taken steps in his recent years to commit fully to painting, determined to understand not just the technical aspects of his materials, but also to keep pushing and understanding what his work means to himself and others. His work is abstract, his process is intuitive and spiritual. I had the pleasure of interviewing Wayson while he was still in residence at Montgomery College and we spoke about how his process keeps evolving and what it means to invest in yourself as an artist. Wayson R. Jones will also be in the group exhibition I have curated at Dickinson College, Not in Love with the Modern World, opening February 2, 2023. Below is our conversation.
Interview between Wayson R. Jones and Amy Boone-McCreesh
A: YOU’RE CURRENTLY DOING A STUDIO RESIDENCY AT MONTGOMERY COLLEGE, HOW HAS YOUR TIME THERE BEEN?
W: Yes,I’m currently in a studio as part of an artist residency at Montgomery College in Silver Spring, MD. It’s been a real career milestone and highlight for me. I’ve been able to make some large work and do some experimentation with materials. I’ve had some really good engagement with students and faculty, which led to a possible mentoring relationship with a student. The residency has really highlighted for me that no other schools in the DC area seem to have something like this, which then leads me to question why they don’t. The requirements are an artist talk and a workshop-like activity. My time here has culminated in a retrospective-type show of about a forty works.
My personal studio is in the Gateway Arts District in Brentwood, MD. I’ve been there all of my career really, within the same three block radius. Other than the drawbacks of relatively small size, or logistical problems like heat and A/C, I really like being part of the Arts community in the Gateway Arts District. It’s been a real nurturing environment for me, as someone who is self-taught and didn’t have the opportunity to network during art school. So I’ve appreciated having those artist peers and friends around me
HOW DID YOU COME TO YOUR CURRENT TEXTURE BASED PAINTING PROCESS? WHAT IS YOUR ATTRACTION TO USING TEXTURE?
It’s a departure from my other work in the use of color. This new series started small, 6 x 6 inches, but are getting larger, to about 2 x 2 ft. I think I’m on my 8th or 9th piece at that size, and I’m beginning to feel really comfortable at that scale.
In about 2011, I first started using the pumice gel in pieces that covered the entire surface. That work is mostly all black or black and white, on 11 x 14-inch cradled panels. I used the pumice, but also a pour of acrylic gloss medium to get the look of a resin finish. That work from around 2011 predates my use of canvas. Going back to my self-taught status, it was a learning curve from beginning to work on paper and then cradled boards, then store-bought canvas, then stretched canvas. So it’s been a progression of learning the process and craft in tandem.
I tend to be drawn to distressed kinds of surfaces and appearances. Worn or aged surfaces and finishes are compelling to me. I think it has something to do with damage, in a sense. I don’t always parse it out too much, because I’ll broach on the emotional foundations of the work that I don’t always want to explain to myself. I want some mystery to remain in the work for me. The viewers have that by default, but that space is the activation and language of what is happening between the piece and the viewer. There’s the potential for their apprehension of intent, motivation, or the spiritual content of the work. That’s the conversation, and I want to be part of that conversation rather than being the “man behind the curtain,” dropping things in, being all-knowing and feeding it to the viewer.
I’m in a place now where I’m kind of grappling with the intuitive approach vs a more intentional approach, both with material and scale. With the pumice gel, once I apply the material and it dries, it’s pretty much set. I can remove or add gel, and lately I have been doing that with some wood cutting tools. But generally I start with a predetermined, active surface. So I think that’s another aspect of it that’s appealing for me. The surface is activated and dynamic; the texture makes the surface dynamic.
YOU HAVE A HISTORY OF WORKING IN BLACK AND WHITE BUT YOUR MORE RECENT WORK IS NOT COLOR SHY. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THIS TRANSITION?
After I’d been into the color body of work for a little while, it sort of came to me that what I wanted was for the surface, form, composition, and color to be really integrated and one in a way that my work hadn’t been before. It was only after a few months that I realized that’s what I was trying to achieve.
I wanted the work to be impactful in a holistic sort of way. That’s something I’ve always aimed for, that there’s a sense of presence. Whether it’s sort of figurative or totally abstract, the qualities taken as a whole suggest some sort of energy or entity that’s present in the work and looking out at you. A really good figurative painter captures the quality of a person residing in the painting, which to me is amazing and mind blowing. You look at it and feel someone looking at you.
But this is all what I don’t always articulate to myself on a day to day basis, but is something I want to achieve. It’s something that has come to the forefront more recently as I think about my practice and the spiritual aspects of what I’m doing.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR INSPIRATIONS IN AND OUT OF THE STUDIO?
I had an experience maybe six months ago in my studio when I was working on a piece that’s in my show here at the residency. I was thinking about an artist named Anil Revri whose work, as I understand it, has to do with Hindu spirituality. When I saw his work at the Katzen Museum, it felt like a pilgrimage or devotional just sitting in front of it. It was like an energy circuit going from me to the painting. So as I was in my studio months later, I had this epiphany that I felt I no longer had a choice about painting, because it is who I am, and not something I can willingly walk away from. It was a little scary, really. But there’s something about that sense of spiritual commitment that I want to incorporate or aspire to in my work.
Getting my first studio was a type of bar setting because I was paying money, I had a material commitment to doing the work that was very real and that I didn’t shy away from. It was difficult because I really couldn’t afford it, but I had to. It’s money that you would otherwise put toward buying food or paying rent. You’re diverting resources from your own material well being into this completely impractical and dreamlike activity; and not to sound cliche, but it’s a quest. So channeling myself through the work keeps me going.
In terms of other inspirations, clouds and the sky are really big. In my first studio, I mentioned that I had a big 10 x 12-foot picture window. There were no tall buildings in the sight lines, so I could see all the sky and storms. I think it was really formative for me. Seeing the Milky Way as a little kid, too, I think that really has a lot to do with the use of black. I can remember the absolute sense of awe that I had when I first saw it. That was very formative and profound for me.
I also like street and sidewalk textures, that rough- hewn quality. The black of the asphalt. I’m a winter baby, so I think my first outings were probably in the winter. I think sometimes when I was doing the gloss medium pourings, I was sort of thinking subconsciously of ice. That look of clear, glossiness over really dark black. My inspirations are very sort of prosaic or everyday kinds of things like that.
I could rattle off a huge list of artistic influences, but I think process and materiality are the big points for me. When I first started painting, I read a lot of the publications like Art in America and Art Forum. Being from DC, I knew about Washington Color School from having seen the work. Seeing painters like Morris Louis and Sam Gilliam, where you can see the process in the work itself.
THIS WEBSITE SERIES, CALLED INERTIA, IS ROOTED IN A DESIRE TO KNOW HOW ARTISTS PUSH THROUGH WHEN CIRCUMSTANCES REALLY SEEM TO BE FIGHTING CREATIVITY. WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU ARE FEELING DEPLETED OR DOWN IN THE STUDIO?
I wait it out while still going into the studio. I try to work every day. The day after Thanksgiving, I had a post-holiday slight emotional slump that prevented me from painting that day. I had to admit to myself that I didn’t want to go into the studio. It was hard. I felt bad. I felt guilty, like I was doing myself a disservice. But I just had to say no, you don’t have it today; it’s okay.Being self-taught, I suppose I’ve at times had imposter syndrome, which is something I don’t really experience now. But I think a lot of artists don’t give themselves enough credit for making good work. I think you can take that crisis too far and it becomes part of your makeup. I read a quote somewhere about 30% of your work is going to be bad, 40% is going to be okay, and the leftover 30% is going to be good. So, what, there’s no “great work” category? We have to acknowledge when we make great work!
But that epiphany I mentioned before is the opposite of this existential crisis in that it was really fortifying, in a way. After fifteen years, it makes sense that you put in work and have made the right kinds of supportive connections that allow you to come to this place of commitment. The crisis periods happened twice in my first studio, within the space of four years. I questioned what I was doing, and it would last a few days. I’d still go into the studio, even if I didn’t work. I would just sit with that feeling. In retrospect, I think my work got stronger after experiencing that.
Lately my issue is trying not to compare myself to other artists. I want to do XYZ, but I have to remind myself I’m already doing my own thing. I think I’m pretty good about reinforcing that attitude toward my work.
ANY PROJECTS YOU HAVE COMING UP YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE?
I’m concentrating on making work and going bigger while maintaining the integrity of the body of work. I’m looking forward to strengthening new connections with other artists and with curators.