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Discovering What Lies Beneath: Festival of Arts Exhibitor Kathy Jones Trains Her Gaze on Hidden Delights

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

As a kid, Kathy Jones lived inside her imagination. Convinced that a secret button existed behind her bedroom wallpaper that could open a portal to another place, she peeled the paper off the wall. “My mother wasn’t happy about that,” she says. Neither was Kathy when she discovered nothing more than plaster and drywall.

Certain that tiny singers lived inside her family’s radio, Kathy stared at the back of the box and waited for them to come out.

You can write these anecdotes off as youthful fantasy and an active imagination. Or you can see them as early signs of an artist’s mind at work. A few tiles in the mosaic of one woman’s creative worldview – one that is complicated and concealed, the surface never what it seems. 

Discovering What closeup

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Kathy Jones, painter, has exhibited at the Festival of Arts since 2000

Seven decades later, Kathy’s curiosity hasn’t waned. She continues to be drawn to discovery and delighted by surprise. Compelled to keep pulling back life’s wallpaper, her work always attempts to discover something deeper and more fundamental to the human experience. “If a piece doesn’t surprise me in some way,” Kathy says, “you’ll never see it.”

An early appreciation for art

Kathy’s father was a newspaperman. His job took their family from the Bay area, where Kathy was born, to southern California while he worked first for Hearst and then for Norman Chandler at the LA Times

Newspapers gave Kathy access to some early tools of her trade. Her father brought home giant sheets of newsprint and Eagle drafting pencils. “I drew princesses and fantasy landscapes for my animals,” she says. She carried that love of art with her to Stanford University. 

“I’m a restless human being,” says Kathy. “When I had to declare a major my junior year [at Stanford], I thought ‘Why don’t you just handcuff me?’” While she studied drawing, printmaking and sculpture, she majored in French. Why? Because after studying abroad her sophomore year, she’d already taken the required courses. That freed her to explore every whim that interested her – from journalism to Middle Eastern history – any class was possible. 

That early curiosity across disciplines, and her willingness to take intellectual risks, still infuses everything Kathy does. It’s reflected in her art, in her eclectic Laguna Canyon home, in her career in academia, and in her rich friendships. While curiosity may have begun as an innate trait, she’s known how to feed it in various ways throughout her life. It continues to pay dividends.

The trips of the trade

Kathy credits her time abroad for informing much of her work today. Living in France and Germany played an important role in her development as artist and woman. But it was her two years in Egypt, in her early 20s, that transformed her thinking and influenced the lens through which she views the world. 

From 1964 to 1966, Kathy and her first husband lived in Cairo and spent time on the banks of the Red Sea. His work as research scientist and college professor took them to exotic locales. They trained around the perimeter of India, spent time in Saudi Arabia, but made their home in Egypt where Kathy taught art in the Cairo American College. “There was a sense of cultural adventure and cultural celebration,” says Kathy. That influence remains in her work today. “The textiles and the silver. The markets. Egyptian souqs had bags of spices and Turkish jewelry. It was all dazzling to me.”

Her work continues to be steeped in those vibrant colors. “Every painting is an unknown journey,” Kathy says. She’s carried that sense of adventure, those rich textures and tones, and that discovery of the unknown onto her canvases. 

An homage to women

Some years ago, Kathy became captivated by the work of Ernest J. Bellocq, who photographed New Orleans Storyville prostitutes in 1912. “His book always meant a lot to me. The respect and care Bellocq showed in these portraits always touched me. I wanted to pay homage to these girls.” So she created her own Storyville series.

Kathy came of age right before the feminist movement. “In college, only a couple of women went to medical school or law school.” Kathy says she was born between things – too late to be affected by WWII, too early to bear the full brunt of the Civil Rights movement and feminism. 

Her mother was a powerful influence, an Iris Apfel character, modeling Apfel’s fashion iconography and bold style. She owned a shop in Laguna, Townsend’s, specializing in gorgeous textiles and ornate beads. “She’d pair simple muslin pants and tops with incredibly beautiful jackets. Beads from all kinds of sources.” Kathy appreciated the ethnic celebrations in her mother’s work.

Kathy’s own two daughters carry on the legacy of strength. Hallie is the Executive Director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. “Hallie is a reader and a writer,” Kathy says. “Meg is a maker. She’s always doing something cool. Tie-dying or making beads.” 

Discovering What girls

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Kathy with her daughters, Hallie and Meg

Kathy’s latest exhibit (on display now at the Festival of Arts) is called “In the Mood.” It reflects particular moments in her life and the feelings those moments evoke. Watching her daughters as women and mothers inspired some of this latest work. “One painting is the feeling I have when I watch my daughter and her adolescent girl begin to separate. Another is about watching the career choices my other daughter has to weed through.”

Women – whether strong and powerful, quiet and reflective, in positions of influence, or as steadfast mothers – are important to Kathy. She uses words like ‘homage’ and ‘respect’ more than once when speaking of the women in her life.

A room of her own

“You walk into an art studio and there’s this wonderful aroma,” she says. “And this sense of possibility.” 

Kathy keeps a space at the Laguna Canyon Artists’ Studios, which she’s had since the early 2000s. “The first time I wrote a check, it felt like an indulgence. I’m paying money for just a space to paint. Then I thought, ‘Wow!’ And I still have that feeling every time I walk in. This space means that these paintings are my paintings.”

Discovering What in studio

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An intimate look inside Kathy’s art studio in Laguna Canyon

Her space used to be a dance studio. It still has a giant mirror on one wall. Kathy uses the mirror as part of her process, looking ahead while painting and then, periodically, looking back at her work through the mirror to give herself a different perspective. “It’s an iterative process,” she tells me.

Kathy says the surfaces of her paintings need to be as important as the content. Texture is everything. “I like to see the artist’s hand in the work,” she says. “My paintings are about silence, solitude, space, and shadows – about the moments between actions. I paint people waiting, or gazing, or pausing, or moving from one place to another.” If a piece is working well, Kathy says her audience will feel inspired to bring their own history and stories to the work, making it a shared experience.

Business before art

Prior to devoting her time to painting, Kathy had a storied career in academia. She was the first female Vice Chancellor at UCI and a Vice President at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. After leaving Georgetown, she worked in management consulting and strategic planning consulting.

“To me, a well-run organization has structure, focus, and balance. That’s not different from a painting. There’s an organic whole to both of those.” Kathy says her experience as an artist influenced her management side, incorporating some sense of vitality and fun into the work. She was driven, and accomplished a great deal, but with a lot of joy, respect and civility that’s often absent in the business world.

The delights of aging

We talk about growing older, and the pressures time places on women. “I don’t mind getting older. It’s freeing,” she says. “I came to realize this life is finite. As a result, things matter more to me. You drop the petty stuff (not that I ever dwelled on the petty things anyway). But I recognize this is what it is, and I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

Kathy almost seems giddy talking about this time in her life, and the unexpected surprises that keep coming. “There was a period of time when I was younger and I looked at people my age. I thought they’d done everything. They had their kids, they had their career. There’s nothing new under the sun for them. And I was completely – 100 percent – wrong. That is so great!” 

The gifts of the Festival of Arts

Kathy has exhibited in the Festival of Arts since 2000. “Showing one’s work is hard,” she says. “Having to stand in front of it, talk about it, hear about it. It’s not where I wanted to go. But you have to put your foot in that puddle.”

Discovering What at FOA

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Kathy showing her work to a Festival visitor

From the Festival, Kathy has gotten clients and gallery connections. It’s given her authority to embrace the role of artist. “There’s also a sense of companionship and respect,” she says. “I’m touched by the support that artists give each other, and the joy they take in other people’s accomplishments.” 

I ask how she knows when a piece is finished. “Paintings talk to you like children. When you’re a mother, you’re always hearing, ‘Mom! Mom! Mom!’ When a painting stops yelling at you, you know it’s done.” 

Perfection is the enemy, Kathy tells me. You have to know when to let it go. “I never wanted to be one of those old women who was crushed by the weight of her paintings,” she says. Letting them out into the world seems a necessary part of her process.

Behind the next door…

Whenever people ask Kathy which piece is her favorite, she tells them it’s her next one. “The next one has infinite possibility. That gives me a sense of optimism.”

That seems to be Kathy’s best-kept secret: Never stop peeling back the wallpaper.