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Art AND: Tiffany Jones

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Highlights from Zona Maco

Tiffany Jones travels seamlessly between many communities in Baltimore. The Director of Programs and Equity Initiatives at the nonprofit Access Art is a community artist who didn’t grow up envisioning a life in the art world. “I was one of those kids who never thought of being an artist,” she says. “I remember sitting at the kitchen table sketching and drawing, but never took it seriously like, look what I can do.” Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Baltimore after the age of 14, she learned photography from her grandfather, Ernest Jones, but decided to go to Goucher College and study children’s psychology because she has always enjoyed working with children. At 19, she took a year off from college to raise her then 1-year-old daughter and later enrolled at CCBC where she picked up a photography class for fun, finding that “it was like riding a bike, it just came back to me and I fell in love all over again.” With help from her professors at CCBC, she put together a portfolio and transferred to MICA in 2009 when she was 28. 

While at MICA, Jones worked full time for a small imports company, attended classes, and raised her daughter. When asked about what got her through that exhausting three-year period, Jones laughs and explains that she did it for her family and also for herself. She held close an observation that one of her MICA professors, Colette Veasey-Cullors, shared with her, “[Colette] told me, ‘You’re showing [your daughter] what you know about how to be successful and how to do things.’ I carried that idea with me for the next three years, it meant so much to me.”

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Jones has drawn upon all aspects of her life for inspiration in her studio work, which often starts with photography and “transforms to something else.” About her creative process she says, “I let the project, or whatever it is I’m making, dictate the materials or what it should look like or who it’s for, where it needs to be seen, and who needs to interact with it.” She continues, “My spectrum is so varied but in a good way. I’ve definitely crossed worlds between community arts and fine art; being an older student at MICA and trying to find my niche and where I felt like I fit, growing up in Baltimore and trying to do art of my community and then also creating art that has been exhibited in galleries.” She shifts from one idea to the next and lets the ideas guide the material, the media, and her potential collaborators. Jones has collaborated with many of her friends who have also been featured in this magazine, recently Nicoletta de la Brown and Phylicia Ghee. Of collaboration Jones says, “It’s so rewarding. It helps keep me going because working as an artist, especially with your own studio, by yourself […] it’s constantly like, am I doing the right thing?” Working with de la Brown and Ghee has been an affirming process.

After graduating from MICA, Jones started working at Access Art, a nonprofit after-school program started by painter Tony Shore and muralist Shawn James 20 years ago which is now directed by Marshall Clarke. In her work at Access Art, Jones designs programming and works closely with her 18-person staff. For Jones, the true work that Access Art is doing is making space for kids like she once was, who perhaps didn’t know a career in the arts was a possibility. “We’re not just interested in making kids artists, but we’re making them successful leaders and teaching them about community engagement, civic engagement, leadership, identity—they’re learning about themselves as they make art,” she says.

For her, this job is a perfect match because she is “still working with Baltimore City youth that I’m passionate about. I’m still working with communities that I live in and experience and work with on an everyday basis. Being an example and role model for the people around me and that I interact with on a regular basis is rewarding for me.” Jones often uses her art world connections to bring her friends in to work with the students, showing them that a career in the arts is something they too can pursue if they feel called to it. “In the work that I do now, I [still think] that you can do it too, despite your circumstances, despite where you come from or who your family is,” she says. “You can do whatever it is you put your mind to. You know, just with the right support system and people around you, and it doesn’t have to be your mom and dad. It could be anybody that believes in you and you can make it. That idea still drives me now.” 

Tiffany Jones, "Still Here, Still Whole, Still Rising," installed in 2019 School 33 Studio Resident Biennial

SUBJECT: Tiffany Jones, 38
WEARING: Scarf is gifted, camo sweatshirt dress is from the Gap, worn with her “trusty old Tims” and socks from Walmart. Beaded bracelet with crowns on it so she can “remember her Queen status,” rings are from her mother and grandmother, earrings from Rainbow, and glasses from Walmart.
PLACE: School 33, Federal Hill 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read?

Tiffany Jones: I have a confession… I do not get to read as much as I would love to, but I have an obsession with purchasing books in hopes that I will have the luxury of reading as much as I can imagine. My book collection consists of books written by or about contemporary Black artists, photography specifically related to Black culture, Africian-American history, and psychology.  For a number of reasons I love children’s books, especially if they are illustrated as beautifully as they are written. I love reading to children—there is something about bringing a book to life for them and seeing their reactions of simply enjoying the creativity and their imaginations spinning.

If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, would you live in either New York City or Los Angeles? Another city? 

I don’t think I could pick just one, but I could say I am definitely a city girl. I love the proximity of things, the creative juices flowing through folks, and the hustle of it. I love DC and Philly as potential places to live, and feel like there is a balance I can flow with. NYC and LA seem like a bit much to live with on a regular basis.

I’m not a mother myself but I often hear from parents that they have learned so much from their children. What lessons has your daughter taught you? 

I have learned so much from my daughter Maliyah. I think my number one lesson was trust. I had my daughter at 18 and I had to quickly learn that I needed to trust that I got this and we will be OK. This little person depended on me. Fortunately, I had great role models, so it felt natural to know what to do. As she got older, the lesson of trust comes again. Trusting that you have planted the seeds that were needed to make her a strong foundation to fall on that reminded her she can get back up and still be successful. After that, I would say my next lesson was flexibility. When you get to raising a tiny human going through puberty it can go one of two directions, easy and difficult. I remember we were heading towards difficult, but there was a moment when I saw myself in her and realized what I wanted at that age, and from then on our direction changed to a little more easier—not easy, but easier. Being flexible allowed me to listen, understand, and give space when needed. Another major lesson would be vulnerability. I’ve learned there are times when to wear my cape, and when my vulnerability is my superpower. 

Tiffany Jones, "Black Butterflies"

What is the art supply/business-related material you should buy stock in, you use it so much? 

Google! Oh my gosh, Google keeps me sane and in check, for the most part, LOL!

Is there a show you’ve seen in the last five years that you are still thinking about? Why do you think that is?

I would say it would have to be Autumn Leaves (September 19–November 2, 2014) because it was a significant moment in my life that meant a lot to me personally and is one of my favorite series. While I was creating this work my mother passed, and the process to make the work, the feeling that came out of the work, truly spoke to me as an artist.

The other exhibition would be not really a show, but my work being acquired as part of the permanent collection for the Eaton DC Workshop hotel. The series BLACK is a very special series to me (my thesis work from MICA) and to have the Eaton as a permanent home is exactly where it should be.

What do you make of the creative community in Baltimore?

I love it. I really like that I’ve seen it grow a lot. I think that Baltimore is unique in its art world. I’ve traveled, but I haven’t traveled a lot. So when I go other places, I’m always looking for the arts district and sometimes I don’t see it. In some places I’m like, Oh, this is different. And so it makes me want to come back to Baltimore. I feel like we’re a progressive city in the way that our arts are affecting our communities. Artists are very vocal about our community, our city, and there’s a lot of politics in it. But I know that there’s people trying to do work and trying to make sure artists are supported and that they’re not used to gentrify the city in ways that are not supportive to residents. That’s what I love about Baltimore and our art community. People don’t bite their tongues, they say what they want to say. It’s soul feeding. Sometimes it can be heartbreaking. I feel like the city wouldn’t be what it is without its artists or creative people. 

I do feel like we are a model city of what it could look like if people really respected and supported living artists the way they should be. I had this eye-opener moment last year when we brought Stephen Towns into Access Art. The kids were like, “wait a minute, there’s living artists.” They were like, “Oh my gosh, he’s a real living artist, living in Baltimore!” So that has been a mission in our curriculum, where we pick artists of color, we pick female artists for them to learn about so they can understand that these people are alive and exist. 

You’ve had a studio here at School 33 for about five years now, what’s it like being part of this creative community?

I’ve met so many artists that have come in and out of the building and I’ve seen so many exhibitions come and go. And it’s always fun to be behind the scenes when people are installing their work, especially when like a big installation, like when David Eassa turned that whole project room into a beach-type thing. And someone built a house in the middle of the gallery once, so that’s always fun. They had the mural show a couple of years ago, so it was neat seeing the muralists come in and paint on the walls. What I like about School 33 is we have our set events throughout the year to come together as a community.

You worked full time while attending MICA and raising your daughter. Where did your motivation to get it all done come from?

When I was at CCBC I was going part time and I wanted to either transfer or find an art job. So I did all my credits to just get it done and out of the way and then graduated. I put in the work and I was so excited to get into MICA. 

In 2009, I lost my dad and I had gotten my acceptance letter while I was back in Massachusetts for his funeral. I was thinking about how supportive my parents have been and the sacrifices that they made because I moved down here without them. They saw something in me that if I’m down here, I’m down here for a purpose. It just motivated me to keep going. And then also, I was a young mom and I didn’t want to be stereotyped. If I’m willing to do it for myself, I’ve got to show her [my daughter] and be a role model. 

Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?

Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series. It reminds me of my mom, my childhood, and how the kitchen table plays a significant role in my family. So much happens there. In a Black home it is the gathering place, where you did homework, where you got your hair done, where you had some of the most intimate conversations, the best laughs, the best meals. No matter if I was at Nana’s house, home with Mommy, or at my sister’s house. It is so nostalgic and beautiful and poignant. I can relate to it as a child and as a Black woman and mother.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I am a Gemini, Cancer rising, and Sagittarius moon. I have been told by other people that I am not like Geminis they may know. I have a twin that comes out when people catch my bad side, but other than that I am fun, adaptable, outgoing. I think a lot and can get lost in my head, I’m sharp and quick-minded, genuinely loyal and curious. I’m protective of my feelings, but I love hard. Young at heart. I really do consider a lot when it comes to astrology. I feel folks are pretty close to the traits of their sign. 

Tiffany Jones (photo by Justin Tsucalas

What was the most memorable assignment you were given in school? What did you make?

To draw my first self portrait in 10th grade. I think that was the first time I really saw what I was capable of doing artistically. I taught myself how to illustrate and I drew—but realistic drawing, and a self portrait at that, was not something I thought I had the skill to do.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

Ha! My first job was Chuck E. Cheese! I was a cashier but everyone had to be Chuck E. at one point, LOL. It was always an adventure; I’m short so the head was always an issue—balance was key, children often cried because their parents got a kick out of them being scared, or brave ones would try to follow you to the closet where we had to change, stand outside the door and wait, and then try to figure out how you emerged instead of Chuck E. Cheese. You really have to like kids to survive! Running the prize section was tough!

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

Don’t work in the field of your hobby because then you will start to hate that hobby. Photography / art was my hobby when I was growing up. This wasn’t said to me directly but I heard it often and believed it. It wasn’t until I was in college when I decided to pursue art as a career choice.

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You can support Access Art by donating to the Empower Youth Campaign or volunteering. Their 20th anniversary is coming up this spring; sign up for the newsletter for more info.

Photos by Suzy Kopf except where otherwise noted; images of Jones' artwork courtesy of the artist.

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