In the Spotlight: A Conversation with Matt Jones, Artist and MFA Student at Hunter College

”The art life is the best life that I could ever have intentionally stumbled into,” Matt Jones says to me as we discuss his art and creative process via Zoom. Rather than viewing life and art as two different modes of existence, Jones sees them as deeply intertwined. His finely tuned powers of awareness and observation were as apparent during our interview as they are in his art.

Jones’ work is rooted in the real world, featuring people, animals, trees and other earthly subjects. However, there is also a sense of magic and fantasy, storytelling and world-building. His recent painting “The Beginning of a Story” is set in a natural landscape of grass and trees. However, there is also a large opened human hand in the foreground and a stately building in the background. The human, the earthly and the mystical come together in a way that invites viewers to ponder the relationships between these worlds.

Matt Jones photo
Matt Jones. Photo by EG Asher, courtesy of Matt Jones 

This confluence of reality and imagination can be seen throughout Jones’ art, and features prominently in his recent Hunter College MFA thesis exhibition “Gravity Spell.” This exhibition consists entirely of paintings he finished before the pandemic. Throughout “Gravity Spell,” Jones deftly weaves together the realistic, natural and imaginary, showcasing his growth as an artist during his time at Hunter. Jones’ work will be showcased in The Hunter College 2020 MFA Thesis Spotlight, a group online exhibition hosted by Hauser & Wirth, which opened on Nov. 10.

     * * *

Ben Riley: What are some important influences on your art?

Matt Jones: My high school art teacher, Bill Stephens, laid the foundation for everything that I ended up doing with my artistic life. He showed me what an artist’s life could be like, taught me how to see, how to be open and vulnerable, and inspired my work ethic. At Cooper Union, I was introduced to the work of Philip Guston and Martin Kippenberger. Almost 20 years later, I’m more interested in Guston than ever. As of late I have spent a lot of time with the work of Nancy Shapiro and Frank Moore. I have been reading comics my whole life. Currently I’m rereading Jeff Smith’s “Bone” and just started Donny Cates’ and Nic Klein’s “Thor” on the recommendation of Taurin Clarke, an incredible illustrator and friend.

BR: What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of being an artist?

MJ: My favorite part is that I have a vehicle for expression that helps me process my experiences and insights in a physical way that I can share in dialogue with others. The worst part is the capitalistic expectations and obstacles for artists. I work for another artist, in part, to take financial pressure off of my painting and drawing practice.

BR: Can you give me an overview of what your creative process looks like?

MJ: I keep several sketchbooks and I draw in them all the time. My favorite sketchbook pulls inspiration from medieval illumination, comic books, art, movies, anything, filtered through my imagination. The other sketchbooks that I work in are observational. Eventually I will return to a small sketch or note and start working on that image or idea on a bigger scale. During the pandemic, my practice has become strictly drawing-based  —  colored pencils or ink and watercolor on paper. I have the opportunity to paint this winter, working with the sketches and drawings I’ve made over the last eight months. I have no idea what the transition between mediums is going to be like  —  I’m super excited about that.

BR: What themes or subjects do you most enjoy drawing from? Are there any themes or subjects that you keep coming back to?

MJ: There’s a lot of imagery of trees and tree trunks. I’m very interested in leaves and patterns, changes with iterations. Seedlings, mushrooms and owls are hopeful, if skeptical, in my drawings, not as a romantic optimism, but the kind that acknowledges the major environmental and political struggles we’re immersed in daily. I also return to imagery from medieval illumination. I DM two Dungeons & Dragons campaigns [DM is short for Dungeon Master, the participant who also organizes and referees the game], both started during the pandemic, and the amount of work that goes into that form of storytelling and world-building has helped me to develop characters, symbols and mappings. So I have a sense of where, if not always when, moments in my drawings take place.

BR: What mediums or tools do you prefer to use to express these series of imagery?

MJ: Before the pandemic, before I had to close down my studio, oil painting was my preferred medium. But I can’t oil paint at home. As I was leaving my studio in March, I had to figure out how I could make work in my one-bedroom apartment, which I share with my brilliant poet partner and our greyhound. Before I left my studio, I grabbed some colored pencils and paper, and I shifted my practice over to colored pencil drawing, which allowed me to continue making the work I had started a month or two earlier for my thesis.

BR: You recently had an MFA thesis exhibition at Hunter College entitled “Gravity Spell.” Are all of these mediums present in this exhibition? How did you approach what to include in this show?

MJ: All of the works in the show were made before the start of the pandemic, so everything is painted. “Nighttime Forest Scene” was painted on the last day  —  after I finished the painting, I closed up my studio. I chose to show paintings, rather than the more recent drawings, because I hadn’t yet had the chance to share them with anyone.

“Nighttime Forest Scene,” 2020, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of Matt Jones

BR: I think it’s really interesting that one of the paintings was finished on the last day before school went online.

MJ: I asked my partner last-minute if he minded that I spent most of that day painting, because his school had just announced that it was closing so I knew they were going to shut down CUNY, and I had just sketched out this painting. Eight hours later I finished Nighttime Forest Scene. School was closed within the week.

BR: On your website, there is a section dedicated to daily drawings. What inspired you to start that project?

MJ: One of my closest friends, Mark Thomas Gibson, an unbelievably good artist and professor at Tyler, has always told me to draw from observation. In the early days of the pandemic my partner suggested that I do daily drawings. I take both of their advice very seriously, so I started making little sculptures of elements and figures from my paintings (tree trunks, owls, hands, skulls, mushrooms, rings, treasure, viruses) to draw from daily. I was working on a daily drawing this morning before we started this Zoom. [Holds up a drawing with a hand sanitizer bottle atop a pile of leaves.] The rule is that I have to make one drawing a day, from observation of a sculpture that I’ve made, in colored pencil, on eight by six or six by eight inch paper. The daily drawings have a tremendous impact on the rest of my practice and allow me to experiment in a more intuitive way within my daily routine. Some days I wake up and do one right away, but other times it’s 11:30 p.m. and I haven’t done my drawing yet. Some take five minutes, some a couple of hours. I post them every day on Instagram and the drawings usually prompt conversations and a sharing of ideas with other artists, which has kept me connected to my community.

“Daily Drawing 47,” July 2, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 6 x 8 inches. Image courtesy of Matt Jones
“Daily Drawing 86,” Aug. 10, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 8 x 6 inches. Image courtesy of Matt Jones
“Daily Drawing 166,” 2020, colored pencil on blue toned paper, 6 x 8 inches. Image courtesy of Matt Jones

BR: Are there particular works that you are especially proud of?

MJ: “The Beginning of a Story” is a recent large colored pencil drawing of a monumental hand, a temple (from “Xerox,” a large painting in my thesis show, originally from a Hebrew illuminated manuscript) and an old-growth forest, inspired by Tiepolo’s “Scherzi di Fantasia” etchings and trees in my neighborhood. I struggled with this drawing for weeks, erasing it several times, moving the forms around, and overlaying images. I think about this drawing all the time and am especially proud of it.

“The Beginning of a Story,” 2020, colored pencil on Stonehenge natural paper, 22 x 30 inches. Image courtesy of Matt Jones

“Xerox,” 2020, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of Matt Jones

BR: What are some upcoming projects that you are working on?

MJ: Three drawings will be included in an upcoming online exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, ”The Hunter College 2020 MFA Thesis Spotlight.” I also have three drawings in the inaugural group show at Lauren Fowler’s M Street Gallery in Jersey City. Kari Adelaide is curating a show with three stylistically different artists working in colored pencil: Jaqueline Cedar, Alessandro Keegan and myself.

BR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Where can people find your work?

MJ: My website is http://mattjones.studio and my Instagram is @mattjonesstudio.

 Edited for clarity and length.

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