FARGO — At 67, Dan Jones has spent most of his life living in Fargo. Raised here, it’s always felt like home, even when he lived in Minneapolis for a period in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Still, he didn’t always appreciate it in the way he does now as a painter.
“The great thing about Fargo as a landscape painter, if you want to paint the flatness, go west. If you want to paint the lakes, go 30 minutes east,” he says.
Jones displays both sides of the Red River Valley in his new show “Inspired” at the Rourke Art Museum + Gallery in Moorhead, Minnesota, his first solo exhibit with the organization.
This may be his first solo show, but he has a long history with the organization, participating in the annual invitational, "The Midwestern," and judging the 2020 exhibit.
This show also won’t likely be his last, says Rourke Executive Director and Curator Jonathan Rutter.
“To borrow one of Jim’s favorite lines, ‘He is legendary.’ Dan has been a force in our regional art scene for over 30 years now and he seems to be getting better,” Rutter says.
Jim is Rourke co-founder James O’Rourke. He and Jones were working on what would have been Jones’ first solo show a decade ago, before O’Rourke died in 2011. Jones says one of the reasons it never materialized was because he didn’t have enough work on hand.
(Full disclosure, Jones is the author's cousin.)
Over the last 19 months, Jones has had plenty of time to produce.
“You know when you’re in school and in the fall they ask you what you did this summer? This show for me is, ‘What did you do during COVID?’” he says with a laugh. “Even before COVID I spent my days alone in the studio.”
The show is more than 40 paintings, from about 4-by-6 inches to 3-by-4 feet.
His studio is the spare bedroom of his and his wife Julia’s apartment. The space doesn’t allow much space to step back and examine bigger paintings. Instead, he’ll sometimes look at the work through a mirror over his shoulder.
“It gives you the illusion that you’re far away from it. You can check the composition of it that way,” he explains.
Jones used to travel country roads looking for scenery with pastel artist Bob Crowe, who died in late October. Crowe hosted a fall retreat for artists on his farm south of Moorhead and the Rourke hosted an exhibit of those artists and their work in 2018’s “Crowe Farm Retreats: 25 Years Celebrating Art & Nature.”
He used to do more painting in the field, but troubles with his back, hips and knees — injuries from his younger days in construction — keep him working in the studio.
“Sometimes it seems like working large kind of loosens you up,” he says.
One of Jones’ recent large pieces won’t be in this show, but is on permanent display in the lobby of the new Jasper Hotel in downtown Fargo. The 6-by-7-foot painting shows ochre fields in the foreground against a thin green tree line and blue sky. The lower 80% of the painting is the fields, an approach that Jones has used over the last decade or so. He’s often also taken to painting the foreground in earthy browns and blacks.
“I’m interpreting the flat plains and tipping them up,” he says. “There are so many art rules. Rules are meant to be broken. It’s fun to throw the rules out the window. Sometimes you get an idea and start it and it blows up in your face.”
While he may be known for his landscapes, he doesn't consider himself just a landscape artist, as he often creates figurative work and still lifes.
“I used to think landscapes were things you put around figures,” he says.
That started to change when he lived in Minneapolis and would take frequent trips back to see family. The view around Fergus Falls, Minnesota, always caught his attention.
“You could use the car window to frame the image. I started thinking of shapes,” he says.
In the studio, he works from photos he’s taken over the years. More recently he’s used images from social media as a reference, He says one pastel was inspired by a photo from friend Lynn Fundingsland.
Some of the works may start site-specific, but may not end that way.
“I didn’t really approach each painting with a specific product in mind. It was more intuitive,” he says. “I’d just paint and wait for happy accidents to guide my way.”
Over the last decade or so, he’s looked to the tonalism movement of the late 1800s as a source of inspiration. Artists like James McNeill Whistler and George Inness created landscapes as atmospheric, often with a haze or mist coloring the sky in dark neutral colors.
Rutter sees that especially in the series of nighttime works Jones calls “nocturnes.”
“That’s a dead ringer for something like James Whistler,” Rutter says.
While he keeps books close at hand as a reference, he takes even more guidance from his wife.
“When I get into the zone in the studio, I’ll work all day and all night on a painting then come have a cup of coffee and Julia will tell me, ‘This part is good. This part isn’t.’ I live with an art critic,” he says with a laugh. “The thing is, she’s got a pretty good eye. That’s what’s maddening, she’s usually right. I’m lucky in that way.”