I have become familiar with Richard Jones’ work over the past several years and always admired it. I think glass is like the magician’s medium—not something everyone knows how to do or can do, and requiring such specialized equipment and training that its creation and manipulation remains somewhat mysterious. After speaking with Richard at his studio, Studio Paran in Madison, I am further convinced of this notion.
“When I feel my work to be truly successful,” Richard says, “it’s when I’ve gotten out of the way. If there’s too much intention in what I’m doing, then it mucks things up, like I’m trying too hard. I’m putting all my energy into one specific point, but when I’m really engaged with things, I’m able to bring multiple intelligences to the work. If I’m really focused on conveying one idea, then it stifles other inputs. I try to just be more reflexive, I guess, or more intuitive, and then I’m able to surprise myself and have a reaction of ‘wow, where did that come from?’ I’m trying to become more a conduit and less an agent.”
On your first encounter with Richard’s work, you notice how beautiful and delicate and well-crafted it is. The pieces are functional wares: vases, glasses, and bowls. Then there is work that is not as easy to categorize: light boxes, terrariums, slices of icebergs, and “Pedestals for Art of the Found World.” Work that is searching for a function. And if you visit his studio during an event or Gallery Night and see him working with his assistant at the furnace, creating the work in front of you and explaining how it’s done, you’ll become aware of what a dance of myriad forces glass blowing is, a craft that has changed little in its essentials in 2,000 years. If you get to know Richard a little better and have some time to ask questions, like, “Do you come to your studio to make sense of the world?” you’ll realize that, like anyone deeply engaged in their work, it is an extension of Richard himself: collected, smart, and a little Zen.
“When I was a kid,” Richard tells me, “I took private art lessons from a wonderful woman who taught grade school kids painting and drawing, and she’d set up still lifes for us or we’d do self-portraits. She was a very inspiring teacher because she was always curious. So at a very young age I had this experience of drawing as meditation. There’s also this writer, Frederick Franck, who wrote all these books about seeing as meditation. He quotes Zen teachers and medieval mystics, and it’s all about when you’re drawing, you’re really seeing things, and all the labels drop away. You’re drawing a leaf, but you’re no longer saying ‘leaf’ in your mind. You’re actively seeing it. So I always go back to drawing/meditation as the basis for what I do. It’s not about producing a drawing, but it’s the experience of seeing the world with your mind in a different way. The drawing is a by-product in a sense.
“So, I had this experience at a young age of what meditation was or that I could engage with the world in a different way that wasn’t about labeling or categorizing everything. And that’s the touchstone or basis of everything I’ve done as an artist. You can enter that other state of mind whether you are drawing, sculpting, blowing glass, or conceptualizing a complicated installation.”
Entering Studio Paran is on par with experiencing the world in a different way. Richard’s work is stunningly displayed, each piece looking more enticing than the one before. It’s like entering an upscale candy shop with an edge because it’s not just pretty objects, there is also the intellect behind the more sculptural work, asking you questions, making you think about the world around you.
“When I went to art school, there was all this ‘art speak,’” Richard says reflectively, “a sanctioned language that artists and critics use, and it’s something I never really felt comfortable with. For me, the Zen Buddhist language always trumped everything else. So for me, it was hard to think of myself as an artist in the art world because I didn’t feel like I shared that view of art in the critical way that was so important to the art world.
“Making functional work was a safe haven for me early on. I felt I could be the unknown craftsman and be fine with that.” Richard pauses and then adds, “That’s evolved over time, and now I feel like I can do things that might exist in a gallery context because, at best, that can be a place where you as an artist redefine the context. But ultimately I think everything has a given context, and artists have the responsibility to really perceive the world and figure out how they can contribute, and give some thought to how their work fits in the world.”
Richard’s thoughts make sense to me. This is why people have created objects throughout history. Whether a functional or purely aesthetically beautiful piece, I believe artisans from all mediums create work to share it with the rest of the world. They find this to be their best way of communicating.
“Another way to put the question,” Richard says reflectively, “is how do you create meaning in your life? It’s not by trying to create it, it’s by engaging in the particulars—interacting with your family or raising kids or cooking food. You create meaning through the particularities of time and place. There’s not one answer. I think having a studio practice allows me to ask questions in an open-ended, expansive way that allows them to be just questions that don’t need a completely resolved answer. For me, making art is essentially about trying to ask good questions that don’t have answers. It’s not like a scientific problem where you come up with a proveable hypothesis. It’s a way of having a conversation. It’s like, you have someone you’ve known for 30 years, it’s a good friend, and as well as you know them, this eccentric, amazing person, they’re always going to teach you something new or surprise you in some way, but there is a comfort and trust that allows that. It’s not about you or them, it’s about this relationship. For me, that’s actually the most interesting thing.”
It’s even more than that; it extends outward. It’s also about the viewer interacting with the work and the way in which that work enters their lives and how they use a vase, cup, or pedestal. It’s about translating the idea of the maker through the work and unto the buyer. The viewer should be able to look at the work and ask their own questions to create their own relationship with that object. Richard does this beautifully in his work.
“Blowing glass is essentially making vessels.” Richard enlightens me. “That’s the tradition. You can do a lot of other sculptural stuff, an infinite variety of things, but a vase is essentially something you put flowers in, so how does that achieve its full function? I’ve read a lot about ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. They see all the connections: the flowers and where they come from and the season, the architecture of the room, the audience, or as they would say, ‘guest.’ The whole thing.
The flower arrangement is the floral material and the vase and all these connections. It has this expansiveness and, to me, that’s really interesting because it’s the most fertile ground for creative work when you’re actually engaging something that’s beyond yourself. You’re not solely concerned with your own ego, but engaged and curious about how all these things are connected and you are just a part.”
Richard tells me about what he’s currently working on. “I’m getting work ready for a show at Gallery 211 at MATC (Madison Area Technical College) downtown. The theme is Nature Abstracted, and it’s me and three other 2-D artists. I want to highlight how seeing, itself, is an abstraction. How we are always trying to know the world, but it’s an impossible, beautiful human endeavor. So I began drawing parts of the trees in front of my studio—leaves, branches, a bit of root—on glass, and the glass will contain the actual object that I’m drawing, so you will see the object and subject at the same time. The question is, ‘How do we actually perceive something without baggage?’ Or is that even possible for humans? I’ve read that scientists have shown we [as humans] can’t even be truly present because we’re processing all of these things. We’re always nanoseconds behind. As an artist, you think about all these things, but so little of it actually comes across, but it’s what keeps you going, you know?”
Richard’s work is available at many unique retailers across the United States. Locally, you can find his work at his studio, Studio Paran. For more information, visit studioparan.com .
Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.
Photographs provided by Studio Paran.
2051 Winnebago Street