A new book pays tribute to Jim Jones, the pater familias of red rock painters.
The southwestern United States is a rugged, arid, yet surprisingly fragile environment. While it may seem inhospitable, with its vast sun-baked landscape, windswept plateaus, and soaring rock formations, in reality the region is a draw for tourists, artists, and moviemakers—and hordes of modern-day settlers searching for a warm clime and open space.
No one was more in tune with the natural wonders—and vulnerability—of the region than Jim Jones BFA’61, a prolific painter who devoted more than 30 years of his adult life to capturing scenes of the Southwest (primarily Zion and Grand canyons) on canvas.
Asked once how he felt about the contemporary American landscape, Jones replied: “I see lots of unspoiled country, but it’s vanishing quickly. Some of the vistas I’ve painted no longer exist. This land has existed for millions of years, and it’s being destroyed in my lifetime!”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Jones—who passed away on December 6, 2009, at the age of 76—focused so intensely on the area, producing an estimated 1,400 paintings during his lifetime, more than half of which depicted scenes of the Southwest.
Described by art historian Robert Olpin BS’63 and director of the Springville Art Museum Vern Swanson MA’76 in Utah Art as “the premier landscapist of southern Utah,” Jones bequeathed 14 of his most recent paintings, along with his home in Rockville, near Zion National Park, to Southern Utah University to help fund construction of the school’s new museum of art.
In recognition of Jones’s “myriad talents and contributions,” in the words of SUU President Michael T. Benson, the university presented Jones with an honorary degree last May. In addition, the school’s College of Performing and Visual Arts produced a handsome publication—Jim Jones: Recent Paintings, which includes a DVD documentary (by Jon M. Smith and James M. Aton)—in commemoration of the artist and his bequest.
In addition to many stunning images of Jones’s artwork, the catalogue offers up a portrait of the man—his background growing up in Cedar City, Utah, and the trajectory his artistic career eventually took.
After attending the Art Center School (now the Art Center College of Design) in Los Angeles and the University of Utah, under the tutelage of noted artists Alvin Gittins and V. Douglas Snow ex’48, Jones graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and began his career as a portrait painter. He divided his time between summers living in Mexico and winters in his family’s cabin near Cedar City. He also spent time at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, working briefly as a bartender at Grand Canyon Lodge, and also as a winter caretaker on both the north and south rims. He never married and lived simply, devoting himself entirely to his work.
After many years of portrait painting, Jones, almost by accident, took a path less traveled. “Just as I was starting to learn something about the figure, my interest was usurped by landscape painting,” Jones once remarked. He had spent most of his life in southern Utah, and it had seeped into his soul. Plus, he felt he was actually better at landscape than he was at figure painting, so he turned his full attention in that direction. He displayed his work successfully in various galleries throughout the region, ultimately achieving wide recognition for his striking interpretations of the Western landscape.
Bonnie Phillips BS’65, the co-owner of Salt Lake City’s Phillips Gallery, where Jones often exhibited, describes his landscapes as “portraits” that display “a sense of purity of the natural environment.” Jones was also associated closely with the Worthington Gallery in Springdale, just outside the entrance to Zion National Park and near his Rockville residence. The manager there, Kathy LaFave, says Jones’s paintings simply flew off the walls, selling “when they’re still wet.”
Jones often worked outdoors, sitting in the cab of his truck to avoid the gazes of curious onlookers. Bit by bit, he built a house in Rockville that also served as an art studio. His home provided a view of some of Zion’s towering monuments, and he often painted scenes that could be seen outside his window. In recent years, he worked exclusively indoors and on a huge scale, resulting in a collection he called his “dissertation,” which he bequeathed to SUU.
In “Jim Jones in Context,” an essay included in the catalogue, SUU Associate Professor of Art History Andrew Marvick refers to Jones’s “clarity of vision” and describes his canvases as “[shimmering] with unprecedented delicacy.” And Vern Swanson depicts him as “the pater familias of the artists of the red rock.”
Longtime friend (and second cousin) Joan Woodbury, who grew up in Cedar City, says, “Jim Jones was the quintessential artist. He had great heart, zest, and passion for life, and for the land and people he painted. His talent was enormous, and his legacy is unsurpassed.”
A self-described “spiritual painter,” Jones portrayed the sculpted rock formations and expansive vistas with an ethereal tenderness, punctuated with a Realist’s sense of awesome majesty. Yet his approach to capturing the Southwestern landscape was intimate and utterly personal—unique in the true sense of the word.
—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.
For information about purchasing Jim Jones: Recent Paintings and the accompanying DVD, contact Reece Summers, Gallery Director, Braithwaite Fine Arts Gallery, Southern Utah University, 351 W. University Boulevard, Cedar City, UT 84720; phone:
(435) 586-5433; e-mail: email@example.com.