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How A Rainbow Of Plaid Pushed Robert Jones To Paint

Standing in the middle of the main gallery at Cornish College of the Arts, you're surrounded by color: Artist Robert C. Jones' large paintings are vivid swaths of red and green, yellow and blue; punctuated by black lines or circles.

But it's not just the color that catches your eye. Jones' art seems to pulsate as the vigorous brush strokes move in different directions on the canvas. That movement gives the paintings a sense of aliveness that you aren't aware of when you look at photos of Jones' work.

Jones bristles a bit when asked to define abstract art. "I don't use that term," he says. But his paintings are not realistic depictions of people or places. He told an interviewer, "I don't want to paint a sunset. I want to paint the feeling you get when you watch a sunset."

This exhibition, curated by Beth Sellars, represents a tiny sampling from Jones' 50-year career. While the artist, now almost 84, seems to be as busy as ever, he didn’t originally plan on an art career.

He was the youngest of four boys in a New England town. Jones' grandmother left money for the boys' college education, and Jones followed his brother to Kenyon College in Ohio.

"Having had one spring of brilliant lacrosse, I was accepted by the junior admissions officer on the basis of my brother," Jones recalls.

Kenyon's academic rigors were tough for the young student. At one point, Jones was flunking economics. In order to keep his sports eligibility, his professor sent him to the art department. Both professor and student assumed the drawing class would be an easy 'A.'

Jones walked into the department and found the teacher at ease, his feet up on his desk. He had "a plaid jacket on, a plaid vest, plaid shirt, plaid pants — all different plaids," Jones chuckles. "And I realized this is my kind of guy."

By the following autumn, Jones had transferred from Kenyon College to the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the nation's most prestigious art schools. A plan to pursue architecture fell by the wayside in favor of painting. Jones worked first with the RISD faculty and then found his way into the studio of an abstract artist.

After a stint in the military, Jones returned to RISD. By 1960, though, he and his wife, Fay Jones, moved to Seattle. He took a job on the faculty of the University of Washington School of Art, where he taught until his retirement in 1995.

Meanwhile, Fay Jones, also a former RISD student, developed her own painting career. These days the couple maintains separate studios at their West Seattle home, a set-up that works well for them. "The thing that's great about living with another artist is they understand you want that time," says Robert Jones. "She's done so well, she's making my retirement quite comfortable."

Officially, Robert Jones may be retired, but he's involved as ever with his painting. He and Fay Jones have even found a new artistic outlet: They're part of a group of printmakers in the Eastern Washington town of Tieton.