In the Groove

Sheep Jones’ striking textured surfaces imbue simple subjects with soulful wonder.

“I love color and contrast. I think about them a lot,” says Fairfax-based artist Sheep Jones.

In her work, Jones describes a dreamlike world inhabited by winsome young girls, plants with roots pushing into the soil, insects, cats, scarecrows and sheds. The narrative elements are intentionally naive and their meaning is enigmatic, but Jones’ approach to color and surface is sophisticated and inventive with unexpected hues, like pink and scarlet, placed cheek by jowl to great effect. Jones devotes a lot of time to creating raised rough and scumbled textural effects that add visual heft and gravitas to the work. These raw, almost brutish surfaces are a hallmark of her approach, adding interesting contrast to the whimsical nature of her subjects.

Originally from Waterville, Maine, Jones, 65, moved with her family to Virginia more than 30 years ago when her husband accepted a tenured position at George Mason University. But the structures and coastlines of Maine appear often in her paintings, and she returns there each summer (where she has a second home and runs an art gallery with her sister, artist Julie Cyr).

Following the birth of her two sons, Jones stopped painting for about eight years, but started again after moving to Virginia, taking classes at the Art League School at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria. She began teaching there, doing so for 10 years, during which time she was juried into the Torpedo Factory. In 2003, she was named Torpedo Factory Artist of the Year.

Jones works with a variety of different techniques. For the narrative sections, she begins by using photo transfers, over which she applies layers of transparent glazes. She focuses a lot of attention on the negative space, painting around objects to form them. To achieve her remarkable surfaces, she applies many layers of paint, often using a palette knife, which she also uses to scrape the paint away, exposing previous layers of color underneath.

Jones uses cold wax medium—a mixture of beeswax, OMF (odorless mineral spirit) and oil paint. It allows her to create a variety of dense textures of varying degrees of transparency. When first applied, the cold wax medium is very malleable and she can easily remove large areas. As it dries, it becomes stiffer and harder to manipulate. But because the wax never dries completely, at any point, Jones can use a tool to incise marks that add texture and reveal underlying layers of pigment. These can be nonobjective marks or drawn things like bees, which recur often in her work.

In one series, Jones adds black house paint to the bottom gesso layer. She then takes her palette loaded with colors and smashes it against the surface. She does this a number of times, until it is covered with blobs of color. At this point, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but relying on chance and happy accident, she works her way towards a composition. “I start from the top and start finding flower forms—shapes and leaves, all kinds of stuff, looking negatively to tease out recognizable shapes from the splotches of color.” This unusual technique is what gives these paintings their distinctive bumpy texture.

When she first returned to making art, Jones worked in watercolor. A still life set up by the teacher would sometimes include pots of forced narcissus or amaryllis where the bulbs are placed on top of gravel so they and the roots are exposed. Everyone painted the flowers—and in the beginning, Jones did too. But eventually, she gravitated to the bulbs and the roots. When she went back to using oils, she didn’t know what to paint. “I didn’t want to rely on anything I was seeing, I wanted to paint from my imagination. So I would paint a bulb or, root, or bulbous thing in the middle of the canvas and I gave myself a horizon line, where now I could use my imagination to create a world of the underground.”

In Jones’ hands, this generally overlooked subterranean region is full of wonder and teeming life, with worms, beetles, larvae and roots. In one amusing painting, “Carrot In Red” (2017), the roots are pushing down past the water table beneath which are goldfish swimming. Root vegetables continue as potent images for Jones and when she does paint flowers, their roots are usually included.

Jones works more by feel than premeditated design, pairing a painterly approach to materials with narrative elements that are both surreal and lyrical. She provides images that pique the viewer’s curiosity and suggest some kind of storyline, but she wants the work to be open so that each person can create her own interpretation. This ongoing yin and yang is very much a part of her oeuvre. “I like the combination of having the surface very loose with a figure rendered very cleanly,” the artist says. “Narratives flow freely from these forms as they mirror and reflect the viewer.”,

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