'The Word was central to my working life', said Jonah Jones.
Jonah Jones was not a writer, but an artist, and I've been enjoying his centennial celebratory exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn a Weddw. The variety of work on display shows the artist's versatility - painting, drawing, stained glass, sculpture, calligraphy (or painted inscriptions). There are styles that embrace both traditional and modernist, representational and abstract.
Half of the exhibition is taken up with work which incorporates text, usually poetry.
Although Jones had used text previously, this work really took off when he had a year's fellowship at the beautiful Welsh Arts Centre at Gregynog 1981-2. The Gregynog Press has had a long reputation for fine printing, first as it was set up by Gwedoline and Margaret Davies and later when it was revived under the auspices of the University of Wales (the first book printed by the revived press was 200 copies of R S Thomas' Laboratories of the Spirit in 1975). Jones' watercolour of 'The Bindery, Gregynog' views the bindery through the invitation of an open door. Perhaps the exceptional winter snow during his stay at Gregynog prompted him to consider the potential of text on white paper.
'Three Men on a Winter Hill' combines quotations from John Berryman's lovely poem, 'Winter Landscape' (itself based on the famous Brueghel painting 'Hunters in the Snow'), the first line of T S Eliot's 'The Journey of the Magi' ('A cold coming we had of it'), and two lines from Psalm 147, verses 16 and 17, one in English and one in Welsh (and to do with snow, of course!). The images on the picture are very simple - three birds and a fourth flying and the outline of three men.
Jones said that he began with 'odd graffiti in my own sort of vernacular or vulgar, combining text and image' and there is an informality about the construction of the lettering that is most attractive. It reminds me of some of the old freehand lettering of stonemasons or scribes where the letters are not evenly spaced and the words are not tied to straight lines. He said that he owed much to examples in the National Museum of Wales, particularly Welsh Roman Stones, and also to the lettering of David Jones.
In 1984 the University of Illinois commissioned Jones to produce 14 painted inscriptions of Welsh poems for a touring exhibition designed to promote awareness of Welsh culture and its influence in the United States. The poems (some in Welsh, some in English) were by Dannie Abse, Euros Bowen, Gillian Clarke, Tony Curtis, Bobi Jones, Glyn Jones and Gwyn Thomas. As well as painting the letters he wanted to find images to illustrate the words. Gillian Clarke's 'Welsh Blacks' [a breed of cattle] is appropriately a monochrome design - black words on white paper with black hoof prints and a line of grey tractor treads. The letters are in conventional lower case with upper case initial capitals where appropriate. By contrast Tony Curtis' poem, 'Preparations', is all in capital letters. It's a simple, moving poem about preparations for a funeral tea and has a border of teacups.
In the gallery there is a film about Jonah Jones playing on a loop. The film shows his beautiful notebooks with his neat handwriting, sketches, paintings, photos and newspaper cuttings. 'It should all be recorded, it's your life, your record', he said. That sounds like good advice for writers too.
www.oriel.org.uk The Jonah Jones exhibition runs until 17 March.