A large, rippling swathe of fabric glides through the water, startling the aquatic life around it. As it twists and turns, gathers and unfurls, the movement of the water and the reflection from the sky breathe character into what was once inanimate. Suddenly, the motion stops and the fabric floats. Serene, yet unsettling, the dress almost looks native to its surroundings, matching the contours of the ripples and the colors reflected in the water.
But the positioning isn’t quite right. Jean Sbarra Jones motions for her husband to reel in the fishing line. The dress is withdrawn from the water.
The dress in water motif has consumed Jones’s work for nearly half a decade. Uniquely beautiful and widely celebrated, the series is a study in tension and transformation, adding a new dimension to the storied tradition of painting figures in a landscape. But as with most innovations, the path to Dress in Water was a long and circuitous one.
Jean Sbarra Jones was always determined to be an artist. As a child, she was fascinated by color and loved the theater, acting frequently in local plays. In time, she moved on to visual art, teaching herself by copying models and experimenting with abstraction. College brought Jones into the world of conceptual art, but after graduation she found herself dissatisfied. This dejection led her to painting, eventually completing her MFA at Boston University.
Her early subjects often included costumed women; a fixation that eventually focused solely on the theater costumes themselves. Often damaged and threadbare, Jones realized that relating these theatrical relics to an outdoor landscape reinvigorated them, juxtaposing their enigmatic beauty with a sense of loss. Placing them in water only strengthened this sensation. The works found new relevance as a reflection of women who have suffered abuse.
Artist and scholar Bruce Herman writes, “Jones’ work is powerfully evocative of the plight of women who have been objectified and used—and whose stories have finally come to light in recent years,” adding “the paintings directly access your mind and heart and imagination—pulling you into this larger conversation while simultaneously pointing toward the mystery of identity, personhood, and how apparel can both define and confine us.”
The Dress in Water Series will be on display at Beacon Gallery as part of the Mixed Messages exhibition, a group show bringing together multiple artists and their work around the concept of sexual violence.
Jones continues to paint from her home in Salem, MA where she is working on another series of dress paintings—this time staged in an interior environment—while teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. To keep up with her work, you can find Jones @jeansbarrajonesart on Instagram and Facebook, or at her website, https://jeansbarrajones.com/.