Since moving to Georgia from her native Chicago in 2012, artist Kelly Kristin Jones has distinguished herself with her thoughtful photographic explorations of space and prolific, dynamic practice. In 2013 Jones was named a MINT Leap Year Artist, and two years later she won the Forward Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award, which provided for her exhibition Gray Space at Swan Coach House Gallery in 2016.
Jones is represented by Sandler Hudson Gallery, where her exhibition Cotton Is Still King (Although Robbed of Some of Its Dictatorship) opens tonight November 2, with a reception at 7 p.m. Her new work, part of a series called Counter History, investigates the presence of historical markers — many of them narrating events from the Civil War — across the landscape of Atlanta and the South. With conversations about history, memory and monuments resurging across the country, I was eager to speak with Jones about the development of her new work. I began our conversation, which took place in Jones’s studio at Atlanta Contemporary, by asking about her relocation to the South.
Kelly Kristin Jones: I moved here right after graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — I was really lucky to get the post-MFA fellowship at UGA. While I was in Athens, I would often escape to Atlanta and really liked it, so I thought I’d stay in the South a little while longer, and here I am still.
ArtsATL: Part of what struck me about you relocating to the South is that you’ve not only stayed here and continued to make work here but to make work about here.
Jones: That’s my M.O. — in graduate school and even before, I was making work about Chicago. I grew up on the West Side and ended up living there again as an adult, and all of my work was about the people and the spaces there: the sort of unexpected details of a very urban landscape. I’m not sure if I’m able to do this any other way besides making work about where I am. What’s really fantastic about Atlanta specifically and the South, in general, is that it’s such a rich and complicated landscape. There’s this continued interest in an investigation of space and place, and I’m attempting to answer these questions: What is this place? Where am I?
ArtsATL: Your background is in documentary photography, and I’m curious about how that took a more abstract turn. With these investigations of places and the people that inhabit them, how do you think photography as a medium assists that? Perhaps most dramatically in your recent work, this is photography exploding out of the frame and out of conventions.
Jones: I think by the end of grad school, I was one of maybe two people in the program still making traditional photographs. I think I’m just a late bloomer; this is a delayed reaction to all the ideas and personalities that I was introduced to in grad school. Atlanta has given me a lot: I have the luxury of being able to afford a studio here and have time and energy to sit with work and really try to unpack these things. Because, inevitably, the longer I sit with an idea or even a single image, I realize how much more complicated it is, and it has to creep or bleed or explode out of the frame.
In grad school I was making these portraits of people in my neighborhood in vacant lots — I’ve always had this thing for vacant lots. [Laughs] I would have my neighbors, friends and family pose in vacant lots, trying to create this alternative to the pastoral landscape. The more of those I made, the more interested I became in the space around these people and what that could say to the viewer. When I came down here, it was really easy to not have to push aside the subject, the portrait, because I didn’t know anyone to take photographs of. [Laughs] So I just wandered around the city with my camera, scouting out these vacant lots, and I found all sorts of other things. That led to the Gray Space work that I showed at Swan Coach House a year ago — really diving into these construction areas and the visuals of those spaces. Finally, after tripping over Civil War markers — or, really, all sorts of historical markers scattered across the city– I became really interested in that and started picking at some of those ideas.
When I was working on the vacant lot series — that started when I was a MINT Leap Year artist, that first year I was in Atlanta — I challenged myself to photograph or document each vacant site differently. I’ve continued to hold on to that challenge: the question is always, “How do I present this photographic work in a way that is a little different from the last, or the next, photo show?” I’m tired of the rectangles too.
ArtsATL: Architecture really came to the forefront of your work in the Gray Space series, but it seems like a critical interest in architecture and the way it shapes our lives has been present since your vacant lot photographs and continues, perhaps less literally, in your new work.
Jones: Absolutely. The Gray Space series came really organically because I was losing my vacant lots to constructions sites! I’d map out these areas and take notes, and plan out these walks to document, and suddenly there would be a Kroger. I still have that Gray Space series on the back burner; as I see sites that are interesting or prominent, I still whip out my camera. As I made those, I was always thinking about these other deeper or larger questions of gentrification — that dreaded word that’s abuzz everywhere, not just in Atlanta — and thinking about who controls these spaces, who controls our landscape, our skyline, and that’s very much a part of this [new] work too: thinking about the installation of these historic markers and when that happened and what that means, and what that means today.
ArtsATL: It would be very easy for you to make work about cultural history and social injustices and gentrification in a very standard documentary way. While it still feels like you’re invested in those questions, you’re pursuing them in original ways that feel mysterious and human and layered.
Jones: I really appreciate that, because there is still a lot of documentary photography to me, and I’m still committed to some kind of translation of that longstanding mission. We are so visually sharp — the visual literacy of viewers is so sophisticated that I do need to continue to challenge myself and others to find new ways to look at these things or consider these questions, even though the questions are longstanding. How do we come at this from a different angle? That’s what keeps me excited and why I keep coming to the studio every morning.
ArtsATL: Maybe it’s part of your temperament as an artist or your background in documentary photography, but it seems your research methods are rigorous yet also loose. It seems like you’re doing a lot of reading and research but also just strolling through neighborhoods.
Jones: I love the research. It’s hard for me sometimes to stop and make the images — I shouldn’t admit that — but it’s so fun to dig around and uncover, and I really enjoy that portion. This newest work especially is so heavy on the research. But, you know, it’s funny because I want to keep a tension between Kelly as archivist and Kelly as fine artist. I hope that those two ends of my spectrum keep each other in line. If I hit a dead end or something is really confusing, because I’m an artist I can make this leap; this can add up anyway that I choose. And that’s not me trying to deceive myself or others, but trying to carve out a more interesting path toward these questions or maybe, sometimes, a kind of answer.
ArtsATL: When did you begin working on the Counter History series, and what was the beginning of that research process?
Jones: There are two events that triggered the beginning of these ideas percolating. I lost both of my grandfathers this past year, and as oldest granddaughter apparently, that means I am in charge of arranging for memorial flowers. So there I was, on my mom’s computer, searching for memorial bouquets and floral tributes, and it was such a strange thing to look at webpage after webpage of really heinous bouquets, and I started researching that tradition.
The other trigger was that where I live, I am quite literally surrounded by Civil War historical markers. I was walking to the grocery store, and I finally decided I needed to read these things. I found it so strange: there was this almost forced confrontation between the public space and this very particular and partial history, this very white, male, war-centered history. And I’m standing there as this white but female Chicago Democrat thinking, “What is this?”
So I started researching all of these markers, and there are other people interested in this — there are lots of maps available with commentary. I started going to these signs, and a lot of them are in disrepair, in various states of upkeep. They’re all over the city of Atlanta, and it also allowed me to continue this exploration of the city at large. I started going to the sites and picking flowers — weeds, grasses, leaves, acorns, pine cones — all this sort of flora and fauna, and bringing it back to my studio and creating a floral tribute to these spaces. While I was creating these tributes, I started trying to figure out what other histories happened at the same site if not at the same time, because I wasn’t creating tributes to the Civil War histories, I was creating tributes to the other histories that occurred. These are in front of people’s homes, and that was fascinating to me because that’s this domestic, traditionally feminine space, and here you have this sign titled after a dead Confederate soldier in the front yard.
So I went on Facebook and began pleading in these, you know, “If You Love Atlanta, You’ll Join This Group” type of crazy groups, and started going to Neighborhood Planning Unit meetings and to the Atlanta History Center and GSU’s awesome photographic archive, and I started uncovering these really fascinating histories that had occurred at each of these sites. A lot of the stories are small stories or seemingly small stories, and I love that, because they’re important too. And there are some really large histories occurring at these sites too, histories that might deserve their own signs and, alas, don’t have that recognition.
ArtsATL: You’re not only challenging the memorial’s message but the whole idea of what the memorial is and what makes it worthwhile.
Jones: I find these objects, these markers, to be much more insidious and dangerous than the marble statuary that there’s been so much talk about in the press. They don’t have the same kind of romantic, artful presence of a man on a stallion in marble or bronze. These are cast aluminum, in most cases, and are on a human scale, at eye level. I’m very aware that by offering a counter-history or counter-memorial that I’m doing the exact same thing they are: presenting a very partial, subjective history or truth. But I think that is a reasonable way to balance this. I’m not trying to erase these Civil War stories — I’m not denying that a battle happened at Peachtree Creek — but I think other stories should be remembered along with the ones being told on these markers.
For so long, I passed by these things every day and never paid attention to them. They become invisible to us, despite being such a large part of our landscape. In some of the prints in my new show, I’ve used this very simple Photoshop technique: the spot-healing tool, which I’ve used to do a very bad camouflage of these signs. I’m doing that to make the invisible visible. What’s problematic about these signs is not necessarily the history they’re presenting but when and where and why they were installed. The agenda behind the installation of these markers continues to this day, and they point to these recurring struggles for power and privilege, space and voice.