Cincy is Creative: Former P&G designer Jimi Jones is an artist with a lot on his mind

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati and the greater Tri-State region are home to people who excel in artistic and other creative disciplines. Each week, we’ll focus on a creative individual who is bringing new perspectives to our lives and enriching our cultural diversity.

Who: Jimi Jones
What: Visual artist, designer, and storyteller
Where: Carl Solway Gallery building, West End
Latest: “Mad Tea Party”
Greatest: “Face as Mask,” “The Last Supper,” “Why These Cultures” and “Smoke”

Jimi Jones is living his dream. Since retiring from a 27-year career as an art director in charge of display design at Procter and Gamble, Jones is relishing the opportunity to pursue his art full time. He proudly welcomes visitors into the spacious studio he has created in the West End warehouse that is also home to the Carl Solway Gallery.

Stepping into the three-room studio is like entering the head of an artist with a lot on his mind. And that’s no accident; Jones gave a lot of thought into how the studio was laid out. He’s a big believer in power of storytelling, whether the story is spoken aloud or expressed visually through a painting or room design.

"Why These Cultures?"

The first room is the artfully designed conversation area that his wife Kris decorated, using African masks and other items Jones collected during his travels. 

Jones is an entertaining storyteller, using gentle, self-deprecating humor to talk about his career, travels, and art. Each story he tells is every bit as colorful as the mixed-culture mural that graces the sitting-room wall.

Titled “Why These Cultures,” the 12-foot wide mural (above) raises questions about African and Asian culture and pays homage to the artist's father, who raised his young family on a military base in Japan. Jones was not even four years old when his father showed him a book of drawings that he had made of Japanese women in kimonos. That inspired young Jones to try his own hand at drawing. When he did, people gushed over his talent.

Powerful proof of Jimi’s drawing skills can be found in “Pieta,” a 60 x 72-inch canvas (above) that hangs near the sitting-room door. Jimi drew the finely detailed piece with a Sharpie pen.

Before entering the room where Jones actually paints, you pass through a long, gallery-like space decorated with big, colorful murals and paintings. Many feature unexpected juxtapositions of icons from pop culture, politics, and religion. The art evokes thoughts about death, martyrdom, race, icons, beauty, hip-hop imagery, and wars in the name of religion.

“A million thoughts about the world run through my head each day and are interpreted in my paintings,” Jones explains in his artist statement. He compares his paintings to pixels on a computer screen, “Like individual pixels, each of my paintings is part of a much bigger concept.”

In the back

In the studio’s window-lit back room are the table and easel at which Jones actually works. Here you see the hundreds of paintbrushes Jones has collected along with stacks of drawings (“life studies”) he executes to perfect his technique. Every week he sketches live models in his studio or people who intrigue him at museums or other public sites.

Jones regards continuous practice as an essential part of being an artist and feels just as happy sketching a study as he does completing a painting: “I would practice in my sleep if I could.”

He likes drawing live models instead of working from photographs because it helps him ensure that his paintings actually look like paintings.

Jones graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) and credits the program with teaching him much more than how to be a designer. Through coursework and co-op assignments, he learned about different types of printing and the real-world operations of design agencies and design studios. When he graduated, he was thoroughly prepared to be an art director, a position that requires communicating with clients and directing other creative professionals in the planning and execution of major projects.

Even after he was hired by Procter & Gamble, Jones never stopped pursuing his interest in fine art. P&G executives encouraged him to build an art gallery outside of his display design studio. And when business required Jones to travel to cities throughout the world, he often took side trips to major art museums to continue studying art.

A pioneer in neoancestralist art

Jones has exhibited in dozens of art shows since 1980 and is regarded as a founding member of the neoancestralist art movement with exhibitions at the National Afro American Museum and Culture Center in Wilburforce, Ohio, the University of Cincinnati 850 Gallery, Thomas More College, the Cincinnati Arts Consortium, the

Weston Gallery at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, and numerous shows at the Contemporary Arts Center. Neoancestralist art links African-Americans to their African essence.

Found objects such as old doors, religious relics, white baby dolls, and empty potato chip bags are combined with sculptural and boldly colored painted forms. The art often blends African symbolism with African-American material culture.

The 2008 exhibition “Pixels” at The Weston Art Gallery was Jones’ first solo exhibition. He has since had solo exhibitions at the Harcum Art Gallery at Wilmington College and Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Ohio .

This year Jones' work has been included in the “Inspiration” show at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center and the “Common Surprise” exhibit at Gallery Salveo in the Rookwood Tower. From March 28 through April 20, his work will be included in the juried show organized by The Dayton Society of Painters and Sculptors in the High Street Gallery. Later this spring, his work will be shown in the Evendale Fine Arts Exhibit at the Evendale Cultrual Arts Center and the “SOS Art 2014” show at the Art Academy of Cincinnati .

Benchmark pieces

Like many artists, Jones hesitates to describe any single work as his “greatest.” But he does regard certain paintings as benchmarks in his development as an artist, including “Face as Mask,” which he did in 1992; “The Last Supper” which was created in 1998; “Why These Cultures” which was completed in 2008; and “Smoke,” which was finished in 2013 (below).

When Jones gives talks about his art, he often brings along four books that illustrate how his work has progressed and been expressed with different themes: dualism, co-existence, neoancestralism, and pixels.

Jones retired from P&G about six years ago. And while he has a studio in his Forest Park home, he still likes coming downtown and “going to work.”

As he continues to work on the life studies and paintings that will shape his next book of art, Jones is clearly enjoying this phase of his life.

“I am so happy, because I dreamed about sitting in my own place and being able to paint whatever I want,” he said. One of the best parts of being an artist? “Your eyes are open to everything. We are influenced by everything we see.”

When he uses his art and his voice to tell powerful stories about contemporary culture, Jones is proudly carrying out the ancient traditions of his ancestors in Africa.

“Mad Tea Party,” by Jimi Jones, 24 x 36 in. oil on canvas, 2014

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