Jeffrey Cortland Jones' small, intimate moments of beauty

The southwest Ohio art professor's new exhibit at Sarah Gormley Gallery, 'Landscape Replica (Long Walks and Blue Eyes),' takes inspiration from seascapes and graffiti writers

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Jeffrey Cortland Jones photographed with art from his solo exhibition, "Landscape Replica (Long Walks and Blue Eyes),” at Sarah Gormley Gallery in the Short North.

Jeffrey Cortland Jones grew up as a graffiti writer, and even though he quickly realized he wasn’t that great at it, he still loved the material and the process. He loved the spray of color, the rattle of the ball inside the can, the smell of the paint. 

"But the thing that I loved the most was not necessarily seeing the tag or the piece; I loved seeing how the city buffed it out,” Jones said. “This battle was taking place between the writers and the city. The writer would put something down on a white wall, and the city would put white paint on top of that, but it's not the same white. It's never the same white. And then the writer would come back and paint on top of that, and then the city would come right back out with supposedly the same white bucket of paint, but it’s still not the same white.” 

Jones began playing with this process, putting a tag down, letting the city paint over it, then shifting the tag over just a bit as the city inadvertently participated in his conceptual art project, overlapping layers of white paint over his tags. “I’d go out every night and move it around, and before you knew it, there was this beautiful, Rothko-esque [piece],” Jones said.  

Later, Jones got his MFA at the University of Cincinnati, but those graffiti-writing days stuck with him. “At art school, you learn everything that you're supposed to learn, but throughout that process, nothing was as satisfying as picking up that can,” said Jones, a Southwest Ohio art professor who now heads the painting program at the University of Dayton. Jones’ new solo exhibition, “Landscape Replica (Long Walks and Blue Eyes),” opens this weekend at Sarah Gormley Gallery in the Short North, including a reception on Sunday, May 2, from 2-4 p.m. 

"True Coming Dream," paint on acrylic by Jeffrey Cortland Jones, at Sarah Gormley Gallery

Jones still uses spray paint in his work, and he still finds inspiration in the layering process, but now the pieces he creates evoke small, intimate moments cast in seaside tones of blues, greens and whites. “They are quite colorful, but in a soft, muted, quiet way. I teach, and I have children, and I've learned that if I'm yelling at either group, they completely shut off. But if I'm just whispering to you, everybody focuses in,” Jones said during a recent tour of the work at Sarah Gormley Gallery. “I create these moments of whisper, these moments of quietude that reward the viewer for spending time with the work.” 

“The simplicity upon the first viewing is really misleading,” Gormley said, explaining that each acrylic piece can contain up to 50 layers of spray paint.  

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“There’s so much effort put in to make it look effortless. … These are quite laborious to make. It's about putting the paint on and sanding and buffing it down, or even scraping it off and completely removing the surface altogether, then doing it again until, finally, the surface kind of works,” Jones said. “I work both sides [of the plexiglass] until one side magically becomes more beautiful than the other.” 

Work by Jeffrey Cortland Jones, photographed at Sarah Gormley Gallery

Previously, Jones created small, vertically oriented pieces, but during the pandemic, he pushed himself to try a new orientation. “I've been making this kind of work for 10 years or so, and it became repetitive and robotic after a while,” Jones said. “COVID actually gave me the opportunity to throw out the old stuff that I've been doing and try something new. It gave me the license to fail.” 

In this new body of work at Sarah Gormley Gallery, Jones experiments with elongated, horizontal orientations and more vibrant shades of oceanic colors. The process was scary, and, as he predicted, filled with failure. But it rewarded him with a renewed joy in his work.  

While none of these so-called landscapes is meant to be a replica of a specific place, Jones does take inspiration from bodies of water, photographing Galveston Bay in the Gulf of Mexico, Rockaway Beach in New York City and the shores of Lake Erie. “This winter I was in Toledo, and I went out to the edge of Lake Erie, and it was frozen, so there was all this snow. And then ice, and then the white sky — that almost starts to mimic what's happening [in this work],” Jones said. “I’m constantly photographing all this stuff, and it just filters in there.” 

Even with bolder colors and a larger, elongated orientation, Jones’ work remains light and airy. Rather than appearing affixed to the gallery walls, the pieces seem to float just in front them. “I don't want them to feel heavy,” he said. “I want them to be singular, intimate moments.” 

Jeffrey Cortland Jones exhibition card at Sarah Gormley Gallery