Permission to Create: The Legacy of Mary Sherwood Wright Jones, at The Works: Ohio Center for History, Art and Technology
February 5 – April 2, 2022
55 S. First Street
Newark, Ohio 43055
When I was very young my grandmother, Mary Sherwood Wright Jones (1892 – 1985), would often draw a picture and give it to me as a gift when we came to visit. Holding the small sheet of notepad paper I could see her sure hand in the lively pencil lines creating the outlines of a squirrel or a rabbit or a deer. With this exchange an invitation to her world of making images also passed between us. I felt a kinship with her in these moments. I knew I belonged in her world.
Best known as an illustrator, my grandmother’s legacy is complicated. After working with my cousin, Michael Kennedy, on the exhibition “Permission to Create: The Legacy of Mary Sherwood Wright Jones,” at The Works Museum in Newark, OH, over the last three years, I can see that everyone has their own perspective on who our Grandmother was and why she made the life choices she did. What I can say with certainty is the personal space she created for self-expression and her generosity and encouragement gave me permission to claim my own territory of expression, permission that has animated my life’s work.
Mary Sherwood Wright Jones’ warm, understated presence was inseparable from her charmed circumstances. She grew up in an ornate, red brick mansion with Victorian era interiors on the top of a secluded hill surrounded by evergreens, oaks, cultivated lawns encircled by rich farmlands. In her early 20s, with encouragement from her banker father, she left her secure midwestern nest to spend two years studying fine art in New York City. She studied with members of the Ashcan School in 1913 and 1914, and her small oil paintings in the show, The Gardener and Nude, are fine realist works. Several of her charcoal self portraits from this time show a serious young woman deftly revealed in light and shadow looking directly at the viewer.
This is the first time her serious paintings and drawings will be shown to the public. While visiting my studio in Mattituck, NY, this summer Michael proposed we show only our grandmother’s fine art works despite her established reputation as an accomplished illustrator for children’s periodicals. My cousin’s suggestion to show our grandmother’s earliest works freed me to speak something unspeakable in my family: something about my grandmother’s illustrations – and the attention they have gotten – has always bothered me. Yes, my grandmother loved to draw, she enjoyed collaborating with the top educators who were her editors, and she liked being paid for her work. At the end of her over three decades illustrating for My Weekly Reader, her longtime editor Eleanor M Johnson wrote, “Mary Sherwood Wright Jones had an ability to deal creatively with reality and fantasy. She used the objects and creates of nature (bugs, raindrops, flowers, birds, bees and fish) which mean so much to children in their discovery of the world.” However, I never wanted to create something under someone else’s direction as my grandmother had done – and I wonder if that choice was an unhappy compromise on her part.
After my own life spend engaging with the vagaries, biases and challenges of the fine art world, I can understand her choice. I understand that the trade-off between creative control, money, and access to an audience has many shades. And yet, I felt she had held something back by choosing illustration. Something colorful and full-bodied and real was missing from her work.
The show is meant to bring attention to the early fine art she made for herself, and to trace her legacy across generations, putting her work in company with the work of my cousin, my daughter, and myself. I have been making art since those early days with my grandmother. I’ve searched, explored, and experimented, on my way to finding ways to make meaning. I chose two new large-scale paintings on stained, cropped, and stitched unstretched canvas for the exhibition. These works show my process of working from the inside letting the boundaries be determined by the interior play of paint flows amidst flashpoints of color. Michael is presenting his abstract paintings made in the last year, which draw upon the color palette from our grandmother’s early 20th century pieces in the show. And, Phoebe, my daughter, is showing photo-collages that explore trends of the American family throughout the 20th and 21st Century using imagery sourced from her own experience together with photographs, letters and other printed matter from prior generations, including those of her great-grandmother.
And yet, like many families I suppose, ours is not without challenges that cloud the legacy we are celebrating. My oldest sister Julia, who kept safe the enchanted, protective circle my grandmother first drew around me, suffered a traumatic injury in 2015. Our family was split in its aftermath making honest exploration of family history fraught at best. One result: my mother refused to loan works by my grandmother for this show. Despite her efforts to bring a limited view of my grandmother’s legacy, we are proudly presenting work that excites us.
In one very direct way, my grandmother’s illustration work has had a renewed influence on me. I have been working on my artist’s book, The Garden, launched at this show, since Julia’s injury. Itpresents a series of emotionally evocative abstract images with eleven semi-autobiographical singe-page stories centering on themes of abandonment and loss. Contrasting feelings of flux and balance run throughout The Garden, generating a cyclical experience that wavers between steady and destabilizing. Stylistically, the work is reminiscent of the children’s fairy tale books my grandmother illustrated. The Garden’s visible binding, with exposed, long, colored threads, highlights the physical joining of the book’s form. I am using my grandmother’s format. Her audience was young children, her iconography bright; I tell a darker more complex tale. That too, is part of her legacy.
I have spent a lifetime exercising my grandmother’s permission to create. I’ve taken my art practice where she could not; I’ve had choices that she did not. Still, precious little has changed for women seeking to be seen. Permission is, of course, just the start of a journey filled with risk. My grandmother showed us both the price of being different and the payoff of putting in the work, day after day. I am now one year older than she was the year I was born; I want to shine a light on the work that shows her undirected self. I want to give her permission to create.print