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Meet an Artist: Jon Rollins, mixed-media artist

Meet an Artist: Jon Rollins, mixed-media artist

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Jon Rollins is a High Point native who earned his Bachelors in Fine Arts at UNC-Chapel Hill. He creates abstract mixed media works combining painting, drawing, collage and printmaking. Rollins has exhibited in Basel, Switzerland; Madrid, Spain; Miami Beach, New York City, and all throughout North Carolina. His first solo show opened in New York City in February 2019.

In his latest work, Rollins uses remnant materials of the art-making process. These scraps, as he refers to them, include sketches, notes, experiments, table coverings, paint rags and failed paintings. A scrap may be from last week or cut from a 1995 kindergarten journal. Rollins collages these materials on canvas and then adds and removes layers of paint, drawings, and more scraps to arrive at a finished piece.

Rollins works out of his studio in his High Point home. When not in that space, he can be found in the gym picking up very heavy things or at the library picking up some nonfiction. Rollins is a soft-spoken man who doesn’t like to brag on his accomplishments but is always ready and willing to have conversation with clients at the YWCA Fitness Center where he trains and also works the floor as a fitness associate. He greets everyone with a smile.

Rollins answered questions about his art and his creative process.

Describe your creative process.

In my latest work, I begin by selecting scraps from my collection. I use these to collage most of the surface, aiming for overload. I also think of this initial collage as a structure to guide me. Once that structure is built, I edit. It’s a cyclical process of adding and removing paint, drawing materials, and more scraps. My revisions are visual and emotional responses to each scrap in the context of that underlying structure. When a canvas is almost finished, I slow down and sit with it, writing questions in my sketchbook. Lately, I like to eat meals in front of my paintings. It’s a good deterrent for making rash changes.

My thoughts and behavior in the studio vary based on time of day. I take advantage of this. I collage in the early morning when I’m feeling orderly and focused. At night, I am a risk taker, so that’s when I draw and paint. Afternoons are reserved for administrative tasks.

Music is playing in the studio most of the time. What I’m listening to affects my working speed and intensity, so I choose music that fits the task. I like podcasts for repetitive actions and prefer ambient noise or silence for slow processes and thinking.

What or who has been a major influence on your work?

I watched a lot of cartoons growing up. I still have those lines and sound effects in mind as I’m working.

I was introduced to Abstract Expressionism in college and continue to study the movement, their influences, and descendants. The first time I saw a Franz Kline in person, I knew I had to try this painting thing. After college, I was obsessed with Stuart Davis for a year or two. Few paintings are more exciting than his later canvases.

My mainstay of inspiration though is drawing. I love to study drawings of all styles from any period or region, but gravitate to works that feel fast and loose. I often prefer a preparatory sketch over a finished work. Most of the books in my studio are focused on drawing. Two of my current favorites are Rembrandt and Eddie Martinez.

How do you incorporate everyday life into your work?

I enjoy finding markings of unintentional human action. Scratches on a wall. A scuffed floor. Spills and stains. These markings may be an accumulation of actions or show signs of change by nature or time. I appreciate these accidental markings in part because they may be unnoticed or thought of as something to be destroyed. From my experience as an artist, the most interesting moments in my work are markings and effects I did not intend. If I attempt to control every detail of the surface, I’m no longer looking and discovering, but am instead forcing my thoughts onto the canvas.

When I see one of these markings, I first observe the shape and form. Then, I guess how they were made, creating a story. Through these stories, I attach meaning and emotion to the markings. Some are gentle and poetic, others are aggressive and bold, and a few are just plain funny: a giant red paint spill outside the hardware store, fading in the sun. My all time favorite is a candy corn spill in a grocery store parking lot. The candies had been repeatedly run over and stepped on.

Observing these marks is a form of training for me. I’m learning how to balance the act of looking at the purposeless with the act of assigning meaning. They are my way of meditating on what I see without judgement and recognizing how I create meaning. As much as these marks inspire me, they are also intimidating. It would be difficult to make a painting as lovely and funny as that mass of flattened candy corn.

What are some of the ways you push or challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone as an artist?

Seeking pressure and aiming for failure.

One of the hard truths I’ve learned as an artist and human being is that I am wrong about most things most of the time. The default yield of painting, as in life, is failure. Since this is true, the only way I can make better paintings is to make a lot of them. Yes, I have a batting average. To encourage more failure, I seek out more opportunities than I think I can handle. My greatest periods of growth as an artist have always been under pressure. In preparation for my first solo show last year, I made thirty paintings in six months, presented half of those at the show, and emerged an entirely different organism on the other side.

Is there a particular piece that is meaningful to you? Why?

REDEFEATER (enamel, silkscreen ink, acrylic, charcoal and paper on canvas, 68-by-54 inches, 2019). It was the first large canvas I completed. It was also a serious grinder. I think it was at least 15 different paintings. That canvas taught me many lessons and I’m grateful for that.

What is the most challenging part of creating for you?

Painting is uncomfortable. It’s the most undevelopable skill I know of, which is why I do it. Yes, my technical skills have improved, but I have yet to find a reliable step-by-step path to a “good” painting. The greatest challenge of painting is not learning the materials — that’s the fun part. The hard part is getting comfy with fear. Every day when I walk into my studio, fear follows close behind. It sells the same story: You are wasting time and resources, you will fail, and you will be alone forever. The trick is learning to say, “That’s cool, I’m gonna keep going.”

My advice to other artists on dealing with fear: Use a timer. You don’t stop working until it goes off. This will allow you to get started. If I can just start, I become curious and the questions in my head change. “What if I screw up?” becomes “What would this look like if ... ?” That’s when I really start painting.

What is your favorite medium to work with and why?

Nothing gets me jazzed like drawing materials. There’s an immediacy to using a single tool to create a mark. I dig the grunginess of charcoal, the subtleties of graphite, and the nostalgia of crayon. It’s well-known that I carry a clicky pen with me at all times.

How has COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine affected your creative practice?

I’ve had opportunities postponed and cancelled because of the pandemic, but I remind myself that this is happening to everyone. Instead of feeling bummed out, I focus on the good things. I’m grateful that my studio is in my home, allowing me to continue my practice during quarantine. Many of my artist friends around the world are restricted from going to their creative spaces. In truth, I feel guilty about it. But sitting around feeling guilty never did much for anyone. I hope that what I make during this time will give folks some inspiration, hope, or, at the very least, good vibes.

Like many artists, I regularly work in isolation, so not much has changed physically in my practice. But in my choices and approach, I can sense that I’m processing the crisis, the change, all of it. In response to the constant influx of doom, happy colors, transparent and reflective materials suggesting a lightness, and scraps from my childhood and adolescent sketchbooks are appearing in the paintings. I’m more impulsive in the studio lately; “why not?” is my current attitude. At the same time, I’ve developed a rigorous schedule. I’m treating this like a residency, so I’ve set goals and expectations. In short, I’m working a lot, experimenting, pushing myself.

I have many to thank for their love and support right now: my artist colleagues, ArtsGreensboro, Artspace, PineCone, Theatre Raleigh, United Arts Council, VAE Raleigh, and my family and friends.

— As told to Alice Owens,

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