Most Northwesterners have encountered the work of artist Fay Jones at one time or other: Her paintings and prints can be found on the walls of local museums, restaurants, and hospitals; her images have appeared on book covers, in the New Yorker magazine, on jewelry, and on wine labels. Seattle transit riders admire her striking mural at the Westlake Station of the Metro bus tunnel and opera-goers seek out her 1989 painting Demi-Mondaine in an upper lobby of McCaw Hall. Jones’s paintings also can be found in the collections of Microsoft, the University of Washington Medical Center, and King County Arts Commission, among others. Since 1970, when she began exhibiting in Seattle, Jones has become one of the Northwest’s most esteemed artists. The beauty and complexity of her work satisfy sophisticated curators and collectors, while maintaining a popular appeal. Jones’ work is particularly appreciated by the most discerning audience of all -- other artists. In 1996, the Boise Art Museum organized a 20-year retrospective, which traveled to the Seattle Art Museum. In 2005 Jones received the Twining Humber Award for lifetime achievement, a $10,000 prize. In 2006, she was named PONCHO Artist of the Year. She and the painter Robert C. Jones, a former UW faculty member, have been married since 1957.
A Well-Versed Childhood
Fay Jones’ artwork has a lot of do with words and it is easy to understand why: She grew up in an exceptionally literate environment. Her father, Robeson Bailey (1906-1972), taught writing and was an early faculty member of Bread Loaf, the acclaimed summer English program of Middlebury College, known for its long association with Robert Frost (1874-1963). Robeson’s great grandfather, Gamaliel Bailey (1807-1859), was editor of the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, in Washington, D.C., which first published Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Robeson Bailey married Hester Fay (1912-1997) in 1931 and during the next 18 years they had six children. Fay, the oldest, was born in Boston in 1936. Precocious and self-assured, she skipped fourth grade and graduated from Northampton High School before she turned 17. She always got good grades, so when Fay began slipping behind in junior-year French, she was called in by the principal. Asked what was going on, she explained her problem: She didn’t respect the teacher and was bored. What the principal told Fay made a big impression, because he was honest and treated her as an adult. He agreed that the French teacher wasn’t the greatest. But he also pointed out that life was going to be full of people who weren’t particularly good at their jobs and that it was up to Fay to do her best anyway. The lesson stuck.
The Bailey family -- which Fay recalls as being “well versed in chaos” (Harthorn) -- moved around a fair amount as Robeson Bailey accepted untenured teaching jobs at various colleges, including Smith and the University of Oregon. While at Smith, Bailey invited Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) to teach a workshop and, during her visit to Northampton, she stayed with the family at their home on the edge of campus. One afternoon a student came to the house and entered, as friends did, through the kitchen door. Fay’s mother -- good New Englander that she was -- answered the door and introduced their houseguest by her proper married name: Mrs. Alan Campbell. When the student appeared in the livingroom, looking dazed and a little awestruck, she blurted out: “I think I just saw Dorothy Parker drying dishes in your kitchen.”
For the Bailey children, keeping company with poets like Robert Frost, Louis Untermeyer, and John Ciardi, or writers such as Parker, A. B. Guthrie and Wallace Stegner, was nothing out of the ordinary. They were simply friends of the family. Fay’s godfather was the poet Robert Hillyer (1895-1961). The things that she remembers about her parents’ friends are typical of a child: “John Ciardi didn’t like me at all. He liked my sister Kate;” or “Dorothy Parker gave me a toy Scotty dog.”
The Hotel Years
In 1950, the Baileys bought a small, working-class hotel in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, just eight miles away from Northampton, and family life changed dramatically. Fay’s father continued teaching -- at Rutgers, the University of Massachusetts, and eventually the University of Delaware -- but her mother now worked 18-hour days to keep the hotel and six children running on schedule. Fay helped out a lot with child-care for her younger sisters and brothers.
She also worked in the hotel kitchen, where she got to be friends with the other employees. There, from the cook, Dave Ring -- Fay calls him “my earliest mentor” -- she learned, among other things, how to skin a muskrat and spot a phony. Dave, Fay recalls, was an uncanny judge of character. Years later, when Fay was home from college visiting with her boyfriend, Bob Jones, Dave spotted them necking in a corner and good-naturedly prodded Bob. “Are you as dumb as you look,” he wanted to know, “or are you going to marry her?” Bob took the cue.
Becoming an Artist
Fay was always very close to her maternal grandmother, Hester Lawrence Fay (1888-1976), who lived in Cambridge with her husband, Richard Fay (1891 -1964), an electrical engineer and acoustician. Whenever Fay visited, her grandmother would take her to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and to Harvard to see the glass flowers. They went to the movies together. Fay recalls once, during the mid-‘40s, watching a newsreel of European refugees and having her grandmother burst into sobs, and then drag her out of the theater. Many years later, when Fay began her career as a painter, it was her grandmother who served as her mentor, a constant source of emotional support.
From an early age, Fay knew she wanted to be an artist. “I always drew all the time,” she says. “I didn’t think about it, I just did it.” But the real revelation came when a family friend, artist Inga Pratt (1906-1970), gave her a Grumbacher watercolor set. Inga’s husband, writer Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) was on the Bread Loaf faculty and had co-authored with Fay's father the cookbook A Man and His Meals (originally called From Hoof to Mouth). Inga was an illustrator for the department store Lord & Taylor. The Pratts had no children and lived the Bohemian life in their New York apartment, which Fay remembers being furnished with “monkeys and bongo drums.” When Fay received the watercolors, packaged in a beautiful silvery metal box, she says, “I was 11 years old and that was it. How did she know?”
After graduating from high school in 1953, Fay went on to the Rhode Island School of Design. “It was the first time in my life I felt I was surrounded by like people,” she said (Seattle Channel). The biggest art news in those days was abstract expressionism, but the RISD curriculum was still mostly focused on the past. Fay felt little affinity with French post-impressionism and the academic rules of painting, although she dutifully absorbed them. But when the RISD museum mounted the first major exhibit of Mark Rothko’s paintings in 1955, Fay was awestruck. Seeing such extraordinary work didn’t make her want to paint like Rothko, she says, but it opened up a realm of possibilities that she hadn’t experienced in the classroom. “It made me want to be myself.”
Painting and Raising Children
In 1956, Fay met Robert C. Jones (b. 1930), a drawing instructor at RISD, and they married the following year. Their first son, Tim, was born in 1958 and a daughter, Deirdre, in 1960 -- the year Bob accepted a job on the art faculty at the University of Washington. Two more sons were born after they moved to Seattle: Tom, in 1964, and Sebastian, in 1966. When the two older kids went off to school, Fay could grab some time in the afternoons to begin making art again. Working on a table in the bedroom, she began painting in a small format, so the pictures could easily be stashed out of the way.
In 1970 Jones had her first painting exhibit at the Francine Seders gallery. All her previous work, from art school, she destroyed. Her work from the early 1970s to 1977 is “primarily diaristic,” wrote curator Sandy Harthorn in her introduction to the catalog Fay Jones: A Twenty Year Retrospective. “The artist created figural compositions in outdoor settings that explored her reflections on social conventions and interpersonal relationships.”
The Jones’s lives centered on family, friends, and art as the children were growing up. In 1971, they bought an old house in the artist-friendly Skagit Valley, an hour north of Seattle, the place they’d spend summers for the next 25 years. Fay fondly recalls the house as “more a shack. It was terribly built and falling apart with dead rabbits under the sink, sheep manure in the living room and dead rodents in the wet insulation in the ceilings. Only foolish people would have bought it and not burned it. Oh well. Eventually we even had indoor plumbing and a septic system. It was great!”
When spring quarter at the UW got out, the family would pack up and head to the Skagit, where the kids ran free and rode their bikes, and Fay and Bob cooked, hung out with artist pals, and painted. Eventually, after the children were grown and finances less constrained, they added a separate building with twin studios.
Coming into Her Own
By that time, Fay had come into her own as a painter. She was working in a larger scale and her dream-like metaphorical scenes were drawing serious attention from critics and arts administrators. In the mid-1980s, Jones was selected for one of the Seattle’s most prestigious public art commissions, a 10-by-35-foot mural design for the downtown bus tunnel, to be executed in enduring tile. With same-format works by Roger Shimomura and Gene Gentry McMahon, Jones’ commission was slated for what a Seattle Times feature deemed “one of the most spectacular stations ... in the heart of the retail district and Westlake mall.” The article predicted that 10,000 commuters a day would see the murals and went on to suggest that the bus tunnel, with its array of outstanding artworks might someday become “an enduring historical image of our place and time” (Gwinn). That’s proven true.
From that success, the next logical milestone in Jones’s career was a retrospective. But with the death of Seattle Art Museum founder Richard Fuller in 1976, the vision of the museum’s directors and Seattle’s top collectors turned to New York, and the SAM forfeited its role as champion of the region’s most talented artists. Fortunately, other institutions stepped up and, in Jones’s case, the Boise Art Museum was proud to organize a 20-year retrospective for such an acclaimed Seattle painter. The show opened in Boise in 1986. The following year, Seattle Art Museum hosted “Fay Jones: A 20 Year Retrospective” as a traveling exhibition, after it showed at the Washington State University Museum of Art in Pullman.
In a review of the 1996 Boise exhibition, critic Chris Schnoor notes that Jones has “a knack for making the intangible tangible, mixing autobiography with social commentary ... . Jones’s figures often have the look of mimes or Japanese Noh actors, infusing the work with drama and ritual” (Schnoor).
Jones herself describes the work as “fiction, set in the present. Caught between curious affection for history and anxiety for the future, I draw on a vivid and inaccurate memory and somewhat quirky observations of contemporary American life” (Guenther).
Because Jones tends to work automatically and her imagery is characterized by strange juxtapositions, it’s easy to see surrealism as her antecedent. She acknowledges the similarities, but lacks any interest in the artistic dogma that was part of the surrealist movement. As a primary influence, Jones cites the work of Philip Guston. “I fell for those ‘50s painting in the Museum of Modern Art when I was in art school. That’s what I went to New York to see. They were so alive and painted and unexpected ... and when he “turned” [that is, returned to figurative work], becoming the critics’ nemesis, it seemed perfectly natural to me. Those last paintings, which I saw in his retrospective, had everything.”
Lives in Art
The Jones’s sold their Skagit getaway in the mid-1990s and a few years later bought a house in Mexico, in the beautiful colonial city of Guanajuato, where their son Tom was a member of the symphony orchestra. Until 2009, Fay and Bob wintered in Guanajuato, where, in separate studios, they produced work tinged by the place, the climate, and cultural history they discovered. They showed their work together there in 2006 at Casa Museo Gene Byron. (It was 30 years after the couple’s first two-person show together at the Adlai Stevenson Library at the University of California at Santa Cruz.)
The Joneses live in West Seattle and both have painting studios there. After selling their Guanajuato house they also bought a live/work studio in Tieton, near Yakima, Washington, where they are active with the print studio Goathead Press.
Love Lies Bleeding
Fay’s affection for history, along with an intense admiration for the work of Francisco Goya (1746-1828), led her in 2000 to a new exploration. Working in watercolor, a medium she seldom used, Jones re-created the entire series of Goya’s Los Caprichos, the Spanish master’s satirical examination of social and political events of his time. Jones showed the 81 small paintings (she bookended the series with her own self-portrait, mirroring Goya’s) at Grover/Thurston Gallery. She said the paintings “are literally copies -- as good as I could make them. A friend told me it’s anthropophagy -- it’s cannabalism -- and it is. They gave me nourishment” (Farr, The Seattle Times).
Because Jones’s work is figurative and evocative, she often gets categorized as a narrative painter, but that description is inexact. The work is suggestive, so it’s easy for viewers to imagine their own possible storylines to explain it. But the images themselves are not that prosaic. Typical Jones tropes include twins or doubles, veils, sailors, donkeys, buddha babies, skirts, interestingly dressed women, and evocative flowers, such as the amaranthus, commonly called “love lies bleeding.”
Jones’s painting of that name grew out of a New Yorker magazine illustration she did for the movie Stealing Beauty by Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci. She kept a photograph of the director in her studio and he showed up as a character in the triptych Blue Moons and an etching, The Conductor.
"In all cases he has some kind of director/conductor aspect," Fay says. "In Love Lies Bleeding he looks generous, with his expansive gesture. The other figures are like a chorus, a Greek chorus, and the amaranthus is from a friend of mine who used to bring me bunches of that. It’s such a powerful plant. It almost looks carnivorous." In Jones’ paintings the figure of Bertolucci has little to do with who the man really is. He is playing a role, she says: “I just sort of absorbed him into something I needed ... . The action doesn’t take place inside the painting; it’s somewhere else.”
The simulation of time and space in Jones’ paintings is deliberately warped and does not represent a cinematic progression, even when she alludes to that with a title like “Full Length Feature.” Instead, Jones presents what she calls a “set-up,” which is closer to the way action takes place on a movie set -- out of sequence, with no pretense of real time, and all the false apparatus of the scenes exposed.
T. S. Eliot once said that good poetry communicates before it is understood. The same can be said about Fay Jones’s paintings. Even when we can’t make sense of them logically, the images pass along a message that can be at once poignant, hilarious, profound, and a little scary. Explaining a Jones painting is like paraphrasing a poem: Once you’ve reduced it to prose, you’ve lost the rhythm, rhymes, harmonies, word-plays, the multiple implications -- all the things that make it what it is.