There is no formula for becoming an artist. Robert C. Jones didn't consider the idea, never even saw any art to speak of, until he was in...

Share story

There is no formula for becoming an artist. Robert C. Jones didn’t consider the idea, never even saw any art to speak of, until he was in college. Yet here he is now, pushing 75, retired from decades as a University of Washington art professor, and making the most liberated, expansive paintings of his career.

Last year, Jones — along with James Lavadour, Robert Helm, Randy Hayes and Akio Takamori — was selected for a Flintridge Foundation grant. The $25,000 awards are given biannually to 10 West Coast artists whose work is judged “of highest merit.”

How did Jones reach this point? Not through van Gogh-like angst or Picassoesque voraciousness, but by taking careful aim and following through.

“I wasn’t a child artist,” Jones said, sitting among his recent paintings at Francine Seders Gallery. “In about 1950, failing economics [at Kenyon College] I took an art course. It was like magic. That was it.” He transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design, thinking at first he would become an architect.

“Even I can’t fix it”

Then, in 1952, renowned abstract painter and influential instructor Hans Hofmann offered Jones a scholarship to his school in Provincetown. The experience changed Jones’ approach to art. “The faculty at RISD were really New England impressionists who thought Cezanne was where it was at. To hear the same language from Hofmann about abstract painting was amazing. He was very theatrical, wearing his pink smock.”

The most startling thing, though, was Hofmann’s practice of elbowing in and working on his students’ charcoal drawings, tossing out comments and insults as he revised. “Even before he ‘repaired’ your drawing, he would make a little drawing up in the corner, showing what it was supposed to be. Then he’d tell you what was wrong with yours and everybody stood around in hushed anticipation,” Jones said.

Now showing

Robert C. Jones oil paintings, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 2 at Francine Seders Gallery, 6701 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle (206-782-0355 or www.sedersgallery.com).

“He had a cult following. If he totally destroyed [i.e. reworked] someone’s drawing, you would see the spray bottles of fixative come out, preserving the master’s hand.”

Hofmann’s ultimate insult, Jones recalls, was the phrase, “Even I can’t fix it.”

The first scar

In such dire cases the maestro would rip up the offending drawing and scatter the shreds.

Still, there was more than drama to Hofmann’s lessons. “Everything he had to say was in search for the real,” Jones said. “He was a very powerful teacher. I still hear his voice, the concern for every square inch of the surface: The first mark you put down, the first scar, destroys this flat plane. The second mark defines how far in that you are going to go. It’s a formal thing.”

After military service, Jones returned to RISD and met the artist he eventually married. Bob and Fay Jones moved to Seattle in 1960, when he accepted a teaching job at the University of Washington.

The principles of abstract painting that Jones learned from Hofmann continue to drive his work. He improvises compositions, intent on making the initial stroke on the canvas spontaneous and fresh. “I love the excitement of starting with some chaotic marks and pulling something out of it,” he says. That might lead to riffs of brushwork that ricochet across the surface in an all-over pattern of light and motion, a tingle of pink and jade and sapphire. Or Jones might balance loose, almost architectural forms of sophisticated color punctuated with slashes of inky black.

Jones does sometimes draw or paint figures, and some of the smaller pieces in the current show (hanging in the office) start with a figurative impulse. But as a rule he steers away from that kind of representation. “It’s sort of a dead end as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “The figure on the pedestal isn’t that interesting. I end up being more interested in what’s outside the figure. I would like to not have negative space.”

Jones relates the notion to charisma. “When a beautiful woman enters the room, her fragrance, her energy [waft out]. It isn’t just the outline of her skin.”

Over the past century, various trends and “isms” in painting have prevailed, but the ideal that Jones is pursuing hasn’t shifted. Consider Matisse’s great 1906 painting “Joy of Life,” he says. “I don’t believe a hundred years is going to exhaust that sense of abstraction. Just look at it: There’s not a false move in it. I don’t think abstraction started at the beginning of the century and ended at the end. It’s always been there.”

As for his own motivation as a painter over the last 50 years, Jones is thoughtful. “I’ve been trying to do the same thing all along,” he says. “Maybe I am getting closer.”

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com