Every painting of Thomas William Jones tells a story, born as they are from the stillness, passion and haunting impressions of the acclaimed watercolor artist.
Tom and his wife Carrie shared those stories when I interviewed Tom for a documentary I am making of his story. Their home, perched on a hill near the small town of Snohomish in the foothills of the Cascades, displays the watercolors of a Master, each capturing what the artist wanted to convey. I insisted on hearing each story and I’ll share them here as a window into Tom’s lifework.
In their entrance hangs a watercolor by Tom’s dad, Robert W. Jones, of a New England church, its bold colors and simple and clean lines against the snow were painted on the day Tom’s younger brother Bill was born. His dad was a weekend artist who worked in the banking industry but valued art, and encouraged Tom in his art career. Tom remembers watching him paint in watercolor. He caught his love for painting and of airplanes from his dad.
“Time Passes” has an honored spot in the living room above the sofa. Two milk cans wait in the drifting snow underneath a tree, just as Tom remembers them from his childhood days in Ohio. So evocative is the painting that it won a silver metal at the National Academy of Western Art. It’s “not on the market” Carrie told me.
I was surprised to see a painting of a cat and said as much to Tom. He told me that it was of Nick, his mother’s cat. She got him as a kitten one Christmas. He lived to be twenty years old. Every Christmas day she would put a red ribbon around his neck. Carrie, who had a fear of cats, came to respect, maybe even love Nick. Nuanced, impressionistic darks flecked with color – a trademark of Tom’s – highlight the winter light and precise brushstrokes on the cat and make “Christmas afternoon” a serious painting, even a masterpiece.
Tom came to the Northwest in 1967 to do a commission of 25 paintings for General Telephone Company of the Northwest’s executive offices. Tom went from the rolling hills and subdued scenes of Ohio to the grand expanses and epic views of the Northwest. His painting “Summer Sentinels” – of a house in the Silvana area of the Skagit Valley in the afternoon light – shows how Tom has acclimated to the mood, colors and light of this place. Roses stand like guards in the foreground. Tom added those roses to the scene, taking artistic license to capture the impression that he sought. Of the house’s façade, Carrie said, “Tom loves porches; the things on the porches, the shadows on the windows.”
In the library is “Hollow Barn”. Tom painted this Arlington barn in 2017. His process of painting it encapsulates his approach. Tom seldom needs a camera. Sometimes a small study is helpful, but mostly he visualizes the painting in his head. He prefers this to a photograph or painting plein air because what he is after is to capture the impression that haunts him not to be controlled by the subject matter himself. Carrie shared that when Tom is at a scene he wants to paint, or just walking in nature, she will see him making painting motions with his hands and she knows Tom is imagining the scene, “seeing it as a painting.” In the case of the Arlington barn Tom added a wall on the front to frame the light and shadows inside the hollow barn, changed the shape of the snow patch in the foothills to move the eye through the barn to the mountains, and added a drift of snow to make the foreground more interesting. So that it is “my barn at the end,” Tom said.
On the bookshelf sits a get well card Tom painted for Carrie when she was sick, sometime during the six years when they were dating.
Nearby sits a painting by Mike Burns. Mike was a gifted watercolor artist who graduated from Seattle Pacific College. Mike and his wife Maxine, became dear friends of Tom and Carrie. But Mike’s approach was very different. His specialty was painting old buildings. He would take many photographs of a building. He saw his paintings as a way of replicating what was there; a time piece of a period. Tom deeply misses his friend who died at an early age and marvels at how many paintings he was able to produce using his laborious method of exact replication.
A collection of miniature paintings hangs in the front hall; all by artists whose work Tom admires. There is a painting by the gifted northwest artist William F. Reese, a friend of Tom and Carrie. Another one is by Donald Teague, a watercolorist who displayed his work at the same gallery Tom did for many years in Carmel, CA. When Tom first met him at an exhibition in Oklahoma City, Teague told Tom he liked his work. This meant the world to Tom because, in the words of Carrie, “Tom worshipped him.” Teague’s painting was a gift of the Carmel gallery owner. Paul Strisik was a painter who lived in Rockport, MA. Tom and Carrie became friends with him and his wife and traded paintings. Reese, Teague and Strisik have passed away, but through these paintings they live on in the home and hearts of Tom and Carrie.
When you enter the dining room “Three Fingers”, a painting of well-known Cascade mountain peaks, catches one’s attention and draws one in. It shows how thoroughly Tom has acclimated to the Northwest. He captures the epic thrust of the peaks and clouds and shadows with loose and fresh washes. The light of the mountain is set dramatically against the darks of the trees in the foreground, darks that are full of colors, like cadmium red and sienna. In painting it Tom envisioned himself on a ridge, with a “shaft of light drawing you in.”
Tom, it seems, paints best when his subject is something he knows and loves, that he feels a passion for, like his painting of the backroad near Millersburg, Ohio, that leads to the Deutschlander Farm. Tom remembers hiking down this road as a boy to camp. In the painting the road leads you over the hill and through the woods to the old barn and farmhouse in the distance.
Tom paints flowers too, sparkling with color and usually set against the backdrop of their natural habitat. With “Trillium” Tom catches a wildflower that he and Carrie see each spring on their walks in their neighborhood. It is striking.
So is “March Yellow” with its miniature daffodils with their rich green stalks and bright yellow flowers jutting up out of the sun flecked moss contrasted with the dark and damp mud of the Northwest spring.
In “Fence Line Iris” Tom imagined two irises and a fence post in the foreground with a stand of trees in the background, and brought it to life with precise and impressionistic brushstrokes. Carrie says that when Tom is in a zone she can hear the brushes being dropped onto the palette as Tom moves from brush to brush, color to color, to capture the impression in his mind’s eye.
“Carrie’s Irises” was a gift Tom gave to his beloved bride and artistic counselor. Carrie supported them as a school teacher for many years before she quit so that she could accompany Tom on his travels and encourage him in his artistic career. Like most spouses of artists, Carrie has had to give up the stability of a regular paycheck for the swerves and surprises of the artistic calling. But they both shared with me that they would choose the same path all over again.
There are benefits to being married to a gifted artist, not the least of which is having original artwork to fill your home with. In the kitchen, Carrie pointed out to me a painting of a chicken that Tom gave her. Carrie had fallen in love with a painting of a chicken Tom had done, but it sold on the last day of the Artists of America exhibit. Tom promised he’d paint Carrie a different chicken, and he did.
Friends visiting noticed the special place she gave to the painting, and over the years have gifted her with an abundance of porcelain chickens which have filled their kitchen.
Each year Tom and Carrie send out a Christmas card to family and friends. Tom paints the image that is used for the card. One of those cards is of a glass lamp base that served as the vase for holly they were given by friends to take to Tom’s mother in Ohio.
In 1985 Tom was chosen to paint the official Christmas card of the White House. Nancy Reagan wanted it to be of the Blue Room and she had a very precise idea of what she wanted. Tom spent hours in the Blue Room creating preliminary drawings. The curator would take them to Nancy, who was ill at the time, and she would send them back with suggestions. Finally he landed on just what she wanted. She loved his card so much that she asked him to paint the cards for the next three years (1986-1989)…and he was free to choose any composition he wanted! Tom said that the artists who paint the annual card are not compensated, but they keep their original art and can sell it if they choose to. He was honored to serve the nation in this way.
Upstairs is Tom’s studio, Spartan in its simplicity. The windows next to Tom’s easel look east at a row of vine Maples and the wooded hills beyond. A collection of miniature planes on a cabinet are a sign of Tom’s love for airplanes (Tom owns and flies a small restored Cessna 140).
A collection of leaves on a plate that sits on a table in front of his easel caught my eye. They are brown, faded and brittle. Carrie told me the story of the leaves.
Each fall Tom’s mom, Roberta, had sent him leaves she collected in Ohio, knowing as she did how he loved Ohio and the fall leaves there. When Tom and Carrie visited her in the fall of 2009 she was in the last stage of her battle with bone cancer. They took her out on a walk amidst the trees. With Tom wheeling her, she would point to the leaf she wanted and Carrie would fetch it and give it to her. She would then lift it over her shoulder and give it to Tom. These are the leaves that sit on the plate in front of the easel, a symbol of Tom’s love for his mother and Ohio. “You value things like this,” he said.
Tom’s valuing of leaves comes through in his impressions of leaves. Some of those leaves are so vivid with color that they seemed to me to be almost on fire.
It is this passionate valuing of a place or an object that drives Tom to paint his impressions of them. Tom is fierce in his pursuit of those impressions. If a painting does not meet Tom’s standard of making him want to look at it for a long time he tears it up and starts again. Each year only eighteen to twenty watercolors pass his rigorous test grip of holding the viewer’s attention and inviting them in.
When I first entered their home, I noticed one painting, “Blossom Impressions”. With its dark background and sparkling, fresh colors I thought it was one of Tom’s, but it turned out to be one of my dad’s paintings purchased by Tom and Carrie. Later as we visited, I asked the story of how they had met. Tom shared that they had connected at Mike Burn’s funeral in 1991. Knowing what a heartbreak it was for Tom to lose one of his best friends Dad had reached out to him. Since then Tom and Carrie and Dad and Mom (who Tom and Carrie call “Annie”) have enjoyed a deepening a friendship.
It was an honor for me to be invited into Tom and Carrie’s home, to hear their stories and to be welcomed into friendship with them too. Tom’s lifework inspires and haunts me like it has done for so many others.