Three vinyl reservoirs hang above scorched model cityscapes. Across each pool drifts a single boat, each carrying a white oak seedling. A table and chairs stand behind the futuristic microcosm in a bizarre tableau as another young white oak is seemingly served up to the absent guests beneath a glass bell jar. Around them, dozens of pads of paper decorate the walls, each torn down to the last page, baring a sketch of a unique leaf rendered in pencil. The installation in no. 5 exhibition space at the Abel Contemporary Gallery is the spaciousness of uncertainty, the most recent work by Madison-based artist Richard Jones.
Born in Clemson, South Carolina, not far from where the acorns which sprouted into those very white oaks were collected, Richard began his art practice taking drawing lessons from a neighbor. Richard describes his teacher as curious, a trait she inspired in her students that informed the development of Richard’s artistic interests.
During the summers of his final high school years, Richard attended the South Carolina Governor’s School, a program providing enrichment for gifted and talented youth in the arts, humanities, and sciences. There he was introduced to Eastern philosophies as he continued his practice of and advancing his knowledge in the arts. These ideas eventually lead Richard to apply to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He entered RISD intending to study sculpture or painting, but on a whim took a glass course, which became his primary medium.
After 30 years, Richard’s glass studio, Studio Paran, cools with the closing of its doors. However, Richard has no intention of quitting art, instead returning to his first media, drawing. Incorporating the art philosophy of Frederick Franck, author of The Awakened Eye and The Zen of Seeing, Richard developed a daily practice emphasizing being present, using drawing as a tool for meditation. Richard explains, “We are all so addicted to identifying and solving problems. … If you’re a hammer, everything is a nail.” Drawing remedies this modern, albeit human, obsession and counters the way we’re all currently experiencing reality. Drawing also offers an opportunity to check in with oneself, revealing a sort of enso or thumb print of the mind devoid of ego.
I was fortunate to attend a drawing workshop offered by Richard and experience The Zen of Seeing. A dozen of us sat in a circle in no. 5 tucked behind the spaciousness of uncertainty. Much like other meditative practices, the instructions were deceptively simple: clear your mind and draw what you see. After sitting in silence, eyes closed for several minutes, Richard placed a single desiccated sycamore leaf on each of our drawing boards. For what felt like hours, but was no more than 15 minutes, we sketched our leaves as slowly and deliberately as possible, trying not to look at the paper.
I felt my thoughts push against the task as my consciousness tried to continue its incessant whir of judgements, associations, and plans. Richard quietly interjected every few moments to remind us to concentrate only on the leaf, pulling our minds back to it whenever we found them wandering to something else. Next, Richard gave us each a white-oak sapling, the same as their sisters floating across the pools around us, asking us again to draw what we saw. This time the quiet settled into me sooner. The four furrowed leaves bursting from the tenuous stem became endlessly fascinating, revealing more to my eyes with every passing moment. I can only describe the experience as profound.
Richard’s decision to close his glass studio was precipitated by his involvement with the environmental group Extinction Rebellion. Established in 2018 in the United Kingdom, Extinction Rebellion advocates nonviolent disobedience to compel governments worldwide to take action on climate change. Richard joined Extinction Rebellion and found them to be outside the mold of every other environmental organization he had encountered. The whole structure of the group is radical—they aren’t asking for policy change but rather monumental societal change. Those involved vary widely: university professors, Catholics, anarchists, families with young kids, socialists, and centrists among others.
Running a glass studio consumes an enormous amount of fuel and resources, and for Richard, the significant carbon footprint weighed heavily on him. Though he has no illusions that his closing will make much of a difference in the scheme of things, he emphasizes the importance of every single person taking what actions they can to reduce the climate crisis.
Art challenges our ideas. Though it doesn’t often provide answers, we can bring the type of thinking art asks of us to other areas of human acting and thinking. Richard explains that his art is most successful when he learns as much from it as his audience. We’re not taught to be collaborative thinkers, and art, in a way, presses against this and may even remedy many of those contemporary shortcomings.
Studio Paran will host a retrospective of works entitled Studio Paran: 30 years, providing a final hurrah for the space and a closing party for well-wishers and fans. Richard hints at something secret he’s working on for the occasion, saying he’s “cooking up something special that’s not glass.”
Studio Paran will be open for Madison’s Spring Gallery Night on May 1 as well as the second and third weekends in May.
Lauren Miller is a historian of art and visual culture, a freelance arts writer, and an associate at Abel Contemporary Gallery.