Over half a century, in a daily studio practice, Robert C. Jones patiently pursued a lush, poetic vision built up with layers of loose, lyrical paint, for which he achieved awards and recognition.

Share story

Robert C. Jones, a major figure in the Northwest art scene who was known for his expressive abstract paintings, his years of teaching at the University of Washington and his enthusiastic participation in the local art community, died Dec. 23 of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was 88.

Throughout his long career, Mr. Jones displayed remarkable dedication to his work and a steadiness of output. Over half a century, in a daily studio practice, he patiently pursued a lush, poetic vision built up with layers of loose, lyrical paint, for which he achieved awards and recognition.

“He was still at work up until very recently,” said his dealer, Gail Gibson, “and he was very involved in helping make decisions about the show.”

That show is “In Tandem,” opening this month at two prominent Seattle galleries, G. Gibson and James Harris, featuring the work of Mr. Jones and his equally renowned artist wife of 62 years, Fay Jones. Their paintings form an interesting contrast: Her work is highly figurative and autobiographical, as opposed to the gestural abstractions of Mr. Jones, which were focused on color, texture, and design.

“He and Fay had enormous respect for each other’s autonomy as artists; although their studios were side by side, they only visited when they were invited,” Gibson said.

For decades, Mr. Jones made regular appearances in regional galleries and museums, as well as being the subject of a monographic book in 1999. He taught at the UW for 35 years, until his retirement in 1995. In an interview with the Seattle Channel in 2009, he referred fondly to his faculty position as the “best day job in town,” fulfilling his duties as a “good citizen” so that he could spend the rest of his time pursuing ideas about painting in as free and unstructured a manner as he could manage. “My way of working has been pretty much the same for 50 years,” he explained, “trial and error — a lot of error.” In the same conversation, he talked about his “1950s aesthetic,” a reference to his summer of study with modernist guru Hans Hofmann in 1952, under whose influence he moved decisively from representation to painterly abstraction, although traces of the figure would reemerge in his work from time to time.

Becoming an artist was hardly a foregone conclusion for Mr. Jones, who was born into a New England family that spent part of its time raising food on a Massachusetts farm during World War II. He worked on the farm every summer from the age of 13, and he liked drawing, but considered one of his three older brothers the artist in the family, according to his biography at HistoryLink.org.

“In about 1950, failing economics [at Kenyon College] I took an art course,” Mr. Jones told Seattle Times art critic Sheila Farr in 2005. “It was like magic. That was it.”

He switched tracks and schools, spending 10 years at the Rhode Island School of Design, first as a student, and then instructor, with a break for military service in postwar Korea. RISD is also where Mr. Jones and fellow student Fay met and married, in 1956. The family moved to Seattle in 1960 for Mr. Jones’ UW job at the School of Art, after a cross-country trek in a tiny station wagon with two young children.

For those whose impression of an artist’s life is one of turbulence and struggle, Mr. Jones offered a counternarrative: a rich family life, dedication and continuity. He and Fay raised four children and enjoyed second homes — first in the Skagit Valley, then Guanajuato, Mexico, and in more recent years, a live/work loft in the artists’ colony in Tieton, Washington. He had 19 solo shows over 43 years at the same gallery, the now-closed Francine Seders on Phinney Ridge. He was selected for a 2003-04 Flintridge Foundation grant, which awards $25,000 to West Coast artists whose works demonstrate high artistic merit. The critics were also kind, with comments like those of Regina Hackett in 2004 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “Whatever pattern Jones establishes, whatever vaguely representational form, his lavishly colored air undermines it and takes over. His work has muscle and grace, blunt force and bright beauty.”

Longtime UW colleague Michael Spafford wrote in a recent email: “Robert Cushman Jones was a pure painter and a great inspiration for me and many others. When I look at his work, I see symphonies. He composed visual music with shifting tonalities, shapes and colors. I can almost hear what I see. When artists of his brilliance die, the whole world suffers. My eyes are full of tears.”

In addition to his wife, Fay, Mr. Jones is survived by his children Tim, Deirdre, Tom, and Sebastian, 8 grandchildren and one great-grandson. A private gathering for friends and family will be held at a later date.