Found item sculpture, painting and hand-made books honor life lessons learned along waterways

Rob Jones is trying to explain the well-known Heraclitus quote, “You can never step in the same river twice,” to his younger son, Ira, but the 6-year-old can't get past the obvious, literal meaning of the words.

The lesson, though, is ongoing, and taught literally by the elder Jones on trips with Ira and his older son, Ezra, 11, to local waterways and watering holes, spending time fishing, hiking, exploring and learning together. These treks also serve as inspiration to Jones, not only in providing inspiration for his painting, but also an opportunity to gather materials for his found-object sculptures.

Both paintings and found-object sculptures comprise Jones' exhibition “The River By Which We Sharpen Our Knives,” on view at the Vanderelli Room this month. The exhibition captures a bit of the vibe of those days spent on the river, of the family members the elder Jones grew up around and the younger Joneses to whom Rob is passing on an appreciation of the outdoors.

“Usually when we go creeking, especially around the river, we'll take some extra garbage bags and a backpack. We'll put the stuff we want to keep in the backpack [and] put the rest in the garbage at the park. It's that whole camping ethic — leaving the site cleaner than it was when you arrived,” Rob Jones said. “I want to keep it clean for these guys, [and also] get them to help and take care of it.”

That these excursions also prove handy for Jones' art-making is a bonus. Wood, bones and other natural materials are augmented by signs, fishing lures, cans and other man-made items collected from the waterways. This kind of art-making is something Jones began experimenting with in his post-college days, when funding for art materials was in shorter supply. But he soon developed an affinity for the medium.

“I'm looking for something that's weird, or different, or that looks old — or is old,” Jones said, adding that he's uncovered an Ohio license plate from the 1940s. “The idea is to not force an object, to not make it something it can't be.”

After Ira mentions that they found a kayak paddle on one trip, Jones explains the storytelling capability of using found objects as the basis for art-making.

“[These items] have their own history, and how I use that has kind of progressed and evolved as I try to become more aware of that history,” Jones said. “There's a history of what the object is and what it was made to do, and then there's also the history we give it, of how and where we found it.”

Paintings depict family members, both those from whom Rob Jones learned fishing and other river activities growing up in rural Northeast Ohio and on family trips to Canada, as well as Ezra and Ira, in whom Jones sees those things he learned coming full circle.

The exhibition's title comes from the original name of the Olentangy River, a Delaware word meaning “sharp tool river,” which early settlers translated to “Whetstone.” (How the river came to be called Olentangy is a story unto itself.) But the sharpening Jones sees is more metaphorical.

“Outdoors, by the river, is where we learned our lessons,” he said. “Things like taking care of the place, like problem solving, like how it's never the same river. What we're sharpening is ourselves. We're honing our humanity.”