Alabama Chanin followers and Journal readers are likely familiar with Phillip March Jones—artist, photographer, author, curator, Makeshift participant, and a frequent collaborator of ours. He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, attended Emory University, the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and Auburn University. Phillip founded and runs the non-profit gallery space, venue, and small-scale publishing house, Institute193 in Lexington, Kentucky. He is now also the director of the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York.
We believe that as an artist he sees beauty and relevance in things that most of us either overlook or choose to avoid, like roadside memorials. His book, Points of Departure, is a collection of roadside memorial Polaroids—glimpses of personal grief and reminders to all passers-by that someone’s life was irreparably changed at that specific place. Phillip merely documents each unofficial marker without imposing his own point of view and allows the viewer to bring his or her own meaning to each photo.
Phillip also served as Director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organization that documents, researches, preserves, and exhibits the work of self-taught African American artists. The organization’s goal is to bring this quintessentially American art form to a wide audience and have it rightly recognized for its essential, influential contribution to the history of American art.
While he has never stated this as his goal, I wonder if Phillip is inwardly driven to change the way the world thinks about and sees things that may be overlooked. With the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, he works to ensure long-term survival of art and artistry of those labeled “outsider” artists; with Points of Departure, he is also giving permanence to what might otherwise be temporary. He is attempting to help each subject transcend labels—or to simply be seen and recognized.
He clearly believes in the same sharing philosophy as Alabama Chanin, once telling us: “I believe that information, influences, and sources exist to be shared. I think a lot of artists, publishers, and musicians feel a need to protect their creative material to ensure their ability to effectively commodify their work. In my experience, sharing images on a website does not prevent people from buying a book, visiting an exhibition, or buying into a project. That notion carries over into my work with Institute 193 and Souls Grown Deep. Both organizations have an open content approach, and function on the principle that education and awareness should always be the motivating interest. All of the work I do is focused on providing access and points of entry to new ideas and material.”
It is with all of this in mind that we asked Phillip to participate in our research project on the creative process. Our questions and his answers are below.
Alabama Chanin: Do you have any creative rituals?
Phillip March Jones: Everything I do starts in a small black book. I always have one in my pocket or bag. I make lists. I draw. I take down notes, memorable quotes, or random thoughts. Things seem to expand out of those pages.
AC: What makes you curious?
PMJ: Anything I don’t understand. I’m especially drawn to people driven by a seemingly other-worldly impulse. Artists, writers, musicians, and individuals who are slightly off or out or left or right.
AC: What do you daydream about?
PMJ: Walking out of my door and never stopping. Just walking.
AC: Do you have processes or tricks to spur creativity?
PMJ: De-connecting. I also take long walks, especially in cities. 6 hour walks. That kind of thing.
AC: Do you have to be in a certain mood in order to create?
PMJ: No—it just sort of seeps out, I think.
AC: If your creative process or project isn’t productive, at what point do you cut your losses? Or is there a point? Do you keep pressing on?
PMJ: Keep moving. Throw lots of things at the wall. Something will stick?
AC: What parts of your work seem the “heaviest” and the “lightest”?
PMJ: My daily photographs are the lightest. My heavier works tend to be my books and works on death, memorials, and memory. And the curated exhibitions. I need to learn to be less formal with those projects—loosen up a bit and find bits of humor in the severity of those ideas.
AC: What parts of your imagination seem the “heaviest” and the “lightest”?
PMJ: My imagination is active and unfocused. In that sense, it feels light, ideas dashing in and out, but the ideas themselves can be a bit heavy.
AC: In what ways would you want to change your imaginative spirit?
PMJ: I would try to make it more focused and productive, even though I think that might diminish the power or force of the ideas.
AC: Is there something that can halt your creativity? Distractions, fears, etc.? Have you found a way to avoid those pitfalls?
PMJ: Distractions and fears have always proven to be good fodder for creativity.
AC: Have you ever censored your imagination or creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone? If so, how?
PMJ: Not really. But there are things I have specifically not shared, because of their personal nature. They do exist, however.
Pink + Green
AC: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?
PMJ: Yes, I would be a gardener.
AC: If you were no longer able to use the medium that you are now working in, how else would you express your creativity?
PMJ: There is always a way to translate ideas into some other format. I would write more I suppose.
AC: Who do you define as a visionary?
PMJ: Unfortunately, most of the visionaries I admire have passed away. I’m looking for some new light. In the meantime: Hudson from Feature Inc, Samuel Mockbee from Rural Studio, and some of my favorite artists like Mike Goodlett and Robert Beatty.
AC: What last made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”?
PMJ: Oh—that happens all the time. I was recently given an umbrella shaped like a cactus. It’s a truly brilliant object.
AC: Which ones of your products and/or services inspire you the most?
PMJ: Institute 193—and what the artists create there—is always inspiring. I only created the structure. The inspiring part is what the artists have done in the meantime.
(This project is made possible in-part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.)
Photo of Phillip by Melvin Way.
All other photographs courtesy of Phillip’s daily photo blog Pictures Take You Places.