Sheep Jones became interested in art at a young age and began painting seriously as a teenager. After high school, she reached a compromise with her parents and studied art education, instead of fine art, at the University of Southern Maine. Soon after, she got married, had children, and stopped painting for almost eight years.
In 1985, she moved from Maine to Virginia with her husband who had accepted a tenured position at George Mason University. From 1994 to 2004, she was an instructor at the Art League School in Alexandria. In 2000, she became a juried artist at The Torpedo Factory, and in 2003 was named their Artist of the Year.
Using oil and wax, her paintings feature vegetation, insects, barns, and dreamlike figures. She’s completed several series paintings that include beehives, chandeliers, and scarecrows. She’s currently working on a series of botanicals.
She’s a prolific artist, averaging 10 paintings per month. Her work has been exhibited in galleries all over the US and Europe.
She divides her time between Virginia and Belfast, Maine, where she recently opened a gallery & studio with her sister, Julie Cyr.
Joyce Brown: What is the The Torpedo Factory?
Sheep Jones: The Torpedo Factory is in Alexandria, Virginia, and it actually was a torpedo factory at one time. It was founded in 1976, and it’s home to roughly 80 working artist studios. It's open year-round, except for major holidays. Its studios feature a wide variety of artistic disciplines including jewelry, ceramics, painting, watercolor, glass, printmaking, photography, fiber, and sculpture. Visitors are encouraged to join artists in their studios to talk about their work. It's very much a part of Old Town Alexandria.
I also have a wonderful studio mate, Tory Cowles, who does large, strong, abstract paintings. We have an excellent view of the Potomac River. There are artists everywhere, so it’s an amazing environment to be in.
Joyce: Why is oil and wax painting your preferred technique?
Sheep: Quite a few years ago, I took an encaustic (hot wax painting) workshop in upstate New York. It was good, but every time I fused — you have to fuse every layer — it sort of melted some of the details I had painted. Then I discovered cold wax, which is essentially beeswax and odorless mineral spirits. Cold wax can be mixed with oil paint and it lets me create dense textures that can be transparent, or not.
One day I was working on a painting, and the sky was empty, so I decided to add a little bumble bee. I liked the yellow and black stripes and I thought it was striking. This happened to be around the same time that bees began dying off for unknown reasons.
I would read articles about the bees and the trouble they were in, and it propelled me into new imagery. I began painting queen bees, drones, and worker bees. I did a lot of hexagons, hives, pollen, and honey. I loved this new waxy, bee arena. It was exciting.
Joyce: What are you thinking about as you paint?
Sheep: I think about images from books and movies that have inspired me. Certain images will remain with me and they pop up in my work. I work on 5 to 10 paintings a day, so I might paint a bee in one painting, and paint the sky in another painting using the same lavender-gray mixture that I created that morning. I like to work that way because it keeps the ideas and color connections flowing. It’s appealing to me.
I sometimes use the same imagery throughout my paintings. If I finish a painting with white bees and snow, then white bees and snow may creep into another painting down the road. I fall in love with certain imagery, and I don't want to lose it. I want it to live on.
Joyce: I watched a video where you were describing how you began a painting with a photo transfer, but you ended up flipping the canvas upside down to finish it because you realized that “it didn’t work” in its original position. Is that reaction a visual thing, or something in your gut?
Sheep: If I like the composition, then I know it will be a successful painting. Before I flipped it over — the painting you’re referring to — the visual and gut reaction was almost the same. Color is sheer joy and it comes naturally; composition is work.
Joyce: What’s your favorite thing about having your work displayed for others to see?
Sheep: I love answering questions and talking to people about my work, especially in a lovely gallery setting. However, my favorite thing is to deliver my paintings to a show and let the curator hang them. For a recent show in Washington, D.C., I had about 40 paintings and it was a blast to see how they’d been hung when I came back for the opening. It's fun to see how somebody else chooses to divide my paintings into sections and quadrants on huge, white walls. Quite often they are grouped together in ways I’d never thought of. I'm usually happily surprised.
Joyce: Who are some of your favorite artists?
Sheep: This is hard because there are so many! I would say that as a teenager, I gravitated towards Vuillard, Braque, Matisse, Klee, Bosch, and a lot of the Russian icons. And later, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Peter Doig, Kiefer, Eric Fischl, Ensor, Romare Bearden, and Rauschenberg, just to name a few.
Joyce: I understand you suffered an eye injury when you were young, and as a result you have limited depth perception; has it ever stopped you from doing what you wanted to do?
Sheep: I do have problems with depth perception and my peripheral field of vision, but it’s never held me back. I was fortunate that I was only three when it happened. Had I been older, it may have been more difficult to overcome. Maybe my art is a little flatter because of it. People often say that my paintings have a lot of depth, but I don’t see it. All in all, I have a great life. I'm happy to be painting.