Benjamin Jones’ “Old Green” (2008), an acrylic painting on Masonite board, is perhaps best described as a portrait of a truck. The rusty, vintage pickup truck, which is green—thus the title—sits in the grass in front of a brick house and some trees in the photo-realistic painting. The artist has so attended to every detail of the truck that it’s almost as if he has personified it.
This approach typifies all of the nearly 70 canvases in the University of Maryland University College exhibit “R. Benjamin Jones: Recording the World in Paint,” on view until August 18 in the lower level of the UMUC Arts Program Gallery at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center.
Other subjects in the exhibit include animals—cows, a rooster, a ram, and sheep—flowers, fruit, people (including Amish men telling stories), boats, and other old rusty trucks.
“Pennsylvania Mill Town of My Youth” (2011) features more metaphorical self-portraiture than even the title indicates. In the foreground, gray-brown tombstones, several with crosses, jut out of the ground in a cemetery. A street with trees and homes circumscribes the cemetery in the middle of the painting. And looming behind the houses is a rusty, seemingly abandoned factory, whose pipes and machinery echo the deadness of the cemetery.
The artist (1936-2017) didn’t begin painting professionally until he was in his 40s, according to Eric Key, director of UMUC’s Arts Program. In his exhibit catalog commentary, he wrote that Jones “employed such detail that viewers can imagine the subject was right in front of them,” that he “brought his subjects—from flowers blowing in the wind to a rooster fluffing its feathers—to life in paint.”
The young Jones was, unsurprisingly, a talented artist. But after studying at the school that is now Maryland Institute College of Art and graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, Jones went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister and served in Hagerstown.
Jones “used his artistic talents in the church creating artwork for the church bulletins and drawing and painting as a form of therapy and relaxation,” Key also noted.
And in a recent interview about the exhibit and Jones’ work, Key said that the artist’s identity as a minister didn’t directly impact his paintings, but there are less obvious connections between his two selves. “I asked his wife. Her answer was, ‘It was more therapy for him.’ But understanding a flower and the belief that all plants and animals have some kind of life, I tend to think he was capturing the spirit of those still lives and those things that we don’t traditionally think of as having life,” Key said. “As a minister, I think it was spiritual.”
In his introduction in the catalog, UMUC President Javier Miyares wrote that Jones’ close friends have said that the artist’s drawings and paintings “represent the connection of art with the human soul.”
Jones picked up the brush again after his physician told him he needed rest and relaxation, according to Key. And the work stands out today at a time when it’s increasingly easy to snap photos on one’s smartphone. “In some respects, it becomes a lost art,” Key said. “People don’t do realism anymore. From his perspective, it’s a documentary of what he’s seen throughout his life, particularly landscapes in Maryland.”
So, what kind of feedback does the UMUC Arts Program get when it shows realistic artists like Jones and Joseph Sheppard before him—an exhibit of select Sheppard works closed April 1—compared with more abstract work?
“You have both sides of the coin,” Key said, laughing. “You get those who prefer realism and those who don’t.”
For more information about “R. Benjamin Jones: Recording the World in Paint,” including exhibit hours and directions, visit the UMUC Arts Program page.