By Terri Robertson
The late Paul R. Jones was an art collector who over his lifetime amassed one of the largest collections of African-American art in the world. His selections were eclectic, but they all reflected his passion: “The collection speaks of a politics of integration and equality, revival, trying to fundamentally change the path of art history and the way that we understand art and its categories,” said Lucy Curzon, assistant professor of art history at UA and director of education and outreach for the Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art.
In 2008, Jones donated 1,700 pieces from his collection, valued at $4.8 million, to UA. But the collection is not here merely to be admired from afar — it’s an interactive learning tool for UA students of all disciplines, from art to political science.
Kevin Jones, now a sophomore, was only a freshman when he began working as a research assistant under Curzon as part of the Emerging Scholars program. While looking through the Paul R. Jones Collection archives, he stumbled upon his research subject: “The Thai portion of it really hit me because I thought, what drew Paul Jones to this? This isn’t really his style based on the rest what he collected, so what are these and why did he see these as important?”
Paul R. Jones acquired the 16 pieces of Thai art in the collection during his travels as a high-level administrator in the Peace Corps in the ’60s and ’70s, but not much else is known about the works. “The most we have on any of them is the first name of the artist and maybe a year and a title,” said Kevin Jones, “so it’s a big uncharted territory within the collection.”
Therein lies the great opportunity presented by the Jones Collection: the chance for the student to be the expert, the creator of art history.
“Kevin’s doing some really authentic sleuthing,” said Curzon. And it’s in the sleuthing that Curzon sees students hone their critical-thinking skills, as they have to determine for themselves whether a source is reliable.
“Students do tend to learn,” said Curzon, “that with a lot of these artists – not just the Thai artist that Kevin is working on, but African-American artists in general, which are 95 percent of the collection – often what we do find is anecdotal. It is information that wouldn’t necessarily be considered scholarly, not because it isn’t valid information, but because no scholarly practices have evolved around this work in the past, nor was this work in and of itself considered part of the canon of art history.”
So when Jones hesitated to use a lead about a Thai artist by the first name of Wancharoen because the website was not a scholarly source, Curzon used it as a teaching moment.
“We had the discussion about distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources,” said Curzon. “But also when you don’t have anything, you kind of have to go with something. If there’s this branch that’s being held out, you shouldn’t not use it.”
The artist, whose full name was Wancharoen Japakang, from the town of Chiang Mai, turned out to be fairly famous in Thailand. Though Kevin Jones could not find him in major artist databases, he did find blogs and other obscure sources that mentioned him, and even reached out by email to an American expatriate who had once interviewed the artist.
“It was really cool that just from a first name that someone, presumably Paul, had written in the corner of the canvas – taking that and then rediscovering the history of these paintings,” said Jones, who presented his findings at UA’s undergraduate research conference.
The information that student researchers uncover helps flesh out the Jones Collection’s artist files and supplement exhibit materials. Sometimes it turns out that an artist is quite well known. For instance, the late Georgia folk artist Reuben Aaron Miller fashioned a living out of making metal cutout whirligigs, and his spinning outdoor sculptures were featured in a video for the band R.E.M. However, many times, all that can be verified is that an artist is deceased, which is in itself valuable information. And then there are the times when nothing at all can be found about an artist. One student, despite going to great lengths, could not even decipher an artist’s first name to begin biographical research.
“What I like to emphasize to the students when they’re doing this sort of work,” said Curzon, “is that when they come up against a dead end, they should start to think about things not as specific as a name but something that is much more general. We can date the piece of work. We can determine from what the artist was depicting in a particular image that this might have been an artist who was working in the United States. So why not work out from there? Think about the date, think about the cultural context of the United States in 1978.”
UA student researchers will continue to seek out and share unknown histories and cultural lessons from the Paul R. Jones Collection. But there is one lesson that’s a constant: the example set by the man himself.
As Louise Corrigan, a recent graduate of UA’s New College who worked with the collection as part of an independent study class, puts it: “Working through the Jones Collection challenged me to think about the moral compass that Mr. Jones used in every acquisition, but more importantly, every relationship he made with an artist. I appreciate . . . the way [he] made the artists feel valued as people and as artists, and his ability to build awareness and increase the value of the works by the vastly unknown artists. I ask myself every day, Louise, what are you doing to add value to the world?”