Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Shirley Jones, an artist, writer, printmaker, and founder of the Red Hen Press from Wales, spoke on Monday about the collection of her work on display in McCabe Library.
Despite her artistic tendencies, Jones was encouraged by her parents to pursue a more stable career in teaching. She graduated from the University of Wales in Cardiff and taught English for seven years.
Jones didn’t turn to printing until her three children had grown up. She bound her first book as part of a post-grad printmaking class. Unsatisfied with binding an empty book, Jones put some of her etchings in it but still feeling like something was missing, she wrote words to accompany the illustrations.
From there, Jones created the Red Hen Press to publish her artist’s books, or livre d’artiste, books in which the art is as significant as the text. Jones illustrates, writes and prints each book herself. Although she originally bound the books as well, she has since delegated that task to a professional bookbinder.
The motif of the circle is apparent in all of Jones’s works, usually in the shape of a sun or a moon.
“It is a reflection of my feelings about the books that I produce,” Jones said. “There has to be a wholeness about them.”
There is harmony between the elements of each book; her vision is present throughout the work. She takes care to ensure that every aspect of the book fits together.
Jones also enjoys the sense of independence her unique work style grants her.
“It’s like building a boat. You want to do all of it, not just a bit of it,” she said. “I certainly don’t want anybody exerting control over what I’m writing.”
Indeed, the press’s name originates from the folk story of the red hen, in which the plucky hen bakes a cake without help from any of the other farm animals before enjoying the fruits of her labor.
The act of writing, illustrating and printing one’s own book is, unsurprisingly, laborious, but Jones enjoys the process. Her preferred method of printing, the mezzotint, is difficult and time-consuming. Jones uses the mezzotint to create rich, dark tones. Though others might find it tedious, Jones described it the process as meditative.
“It’s like peeling potatoes,” Jones said. “Your mind can go somewhere else.”
Although Jones accompanies many of her illustrations with poetry, she sees each of her poems as a moment isolated in time. This is particularly apparent in her books of translations of old Welsh folk tales. Jones selects passages that speak to her from these stories. In her illustrations, she draws attention to the indivisibility of landscape and the legends.
In Chwedlau, Jones explores the firm belief in the “tylwyth teg,” or fairy folk, that long persisted in Wales. In one image, she depicts a tree by a moonlit lake. Although no fairy folk are visible, Jones included the harvest moon so that they’d have light to dance by.
In addition to Welsh legends, Jones draws inspiration from her personal experiences. She created Five Flowers for My Father in the wake of her father’s death. Her book Impressions was based on her first experience in the United States and her travels from city to city. For Gladstone was created in memory of a beloved cat.
Several of her books deal with social issues. Two Moons was inspired by something Jones heard from a young schizophrenic: “Paint me a thousand poppies and two moons.” In the book, Jones examines attitudes towards those deemed “mentally defective” by society. Jones uses Soft Ground, Hard Ground & a Little Light Relief to discuss the experience of being a woman and a mother. Soft ground and hard ground are techniques used in etching. The content of Jones’s message is reflected not only in the images and text, but in the process of creating the book as well.
Jones’s work displays a rare unity because her ideas are carried out seamlessly from conception to publication. Her finished products are strictly her own: the product of her ability to control all aspects of a book.
The books on display in McCabe each represent a facet of Shirley Jones’s vision and ingenuity. Viewing the show, one is inspired not only by the books as beautiful works, but also as pieces of Shirley Jones’s headfirst journey into the world of art.