Louisiana-born artist Phillip March Jones stays busy. Sometimes he's working as an independent curator, putting on exhibitions in Dallas or Louisville, other times he's in Lexington working on the non-profit art space, Institute 193, that he founded. He recently relocated to Atlanta to work with Souls Grown Deep Foundation and from the looks of his portfolio, he also makes some time for making visionary, striking paintings.
His latest project, Points of Departure: Roadside Memorial Polaroids, collects polaroids of roadside memorials taken over the years during his cross country travels. CL caught up with him to talk about the forthcoming book and his recent relocation to Atlanta
What's your background? How'd you get started making art?
I don't know of a specific moment or age that I began making art. As a child I was always making things. I never wanted to play games or throw some ball on the playground. I made forts, drew pictures and took photographs. I was always trying to re-shape the world or create some new thing that I'd never seen before. I am still that way - always carrying around little notebooks to draw and write in - or taking pictures.
When did you start taking pictures of roadside memorials?
I started photographing roadside memorials in 2004 but formally began this project in 2006.
What drew you to them?
I never understood why Americans are so secretive, even ashamed about grieving. I'm guilty of it myself. We are taught to "hold it together" and "be strong." These roadside memorials are public statements of grief, warnings to others, and physical structures that with time become parts of our physical landscape. They mark geographical points of departure in places that are generally devoid of real human interaction or activity and are almost always built in the no man’s land bordering our country roads, interstates and highways. We pass them at sixty miles an hour, sometimes glancing back but are never afforded the time to actually see them. This project is about slowing down. I wanted to give people a chance to really look at them. This book makes it easier (and much less dangerous).
Did you meet any of the people that made these memorials?
I have never met any of the people who made these particular memorials, but I have watched lawn crews carefully mow around them and have seen a highway trash crew straighten a cross that had been knocked off center. The public often takes ownership of them. These memorials can only be truly personal to those who knew the individual who was killed, but I think that most of us feel something as we drive by, if we aren't jabbering on a cellphone or otherwise engaged. Some of the memorials are decorated with pictures or names but many are simple structures with few objects and no indication of the individual's identity.
Do you see a relationship between these memorials and sculpture? Do think of them as art objects or something else?
That's always the question: "But is it art?" If they are sculpture, then they are certainly as good as almost anything on view at any American art museum. If they are not, well, in the end, I am not particularly concerned with classifying them as anything. I made very simple instant photographs that serve as evidence of a larger human need to create when faced with the reality or experience of death. I'll leave the classification to someone else.
You just recently started living in Atlanta. What do you have in the works here?
I am always working on fifteen things at once. I moved to Atlanta to work with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to educating the public about African American art of the Deep South. We organize large-scale museum exhibitions, publish books and work on various collaborative projects in our field. I am also the creative director of Institute 193, a contemporary art space I founded in Lexington, Kentucky. I want to find ways to get more involved in the local scene. There is a lot of great energy here and it seems like the city is hungry for great art, music, dance and theater. I'll just have to wait and see what kind of trouble I can get into.
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