2021-2022 Artist-in-Residence Lena Schmid sat down with Arrowmont’s first Visions Intern, Jonathan Adams, for a conversation about his Appalachian upbringing and background in the arts for the Arrowmont blog. The two cover a wide range of topics – from the influence of silly comics on his creative start, to the different vegetables and herbs his family grew on their farm, to inspirational podcasts and music to listen to while making artwork. Read the full interview below.
Lena Schmid: What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Jonathan Adams: I’ve been eating mostly whole grain cereal and almond milk, some coffee, I think I had a banana and peanut butter, some toast, and maybe an apple.
LS: Where are you from and what led you to pursue a career in the arts?
JA: I grew up in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee. I’ve lived in Tennessee and Virginia on and off my entire life. I had begun drawing comics, mostly, it’s really funny, from Captain Underpants. Because there were two characters in it, two friends, making comics. There is still text in it, it’s not all pictures, and it’s them just doing stuff, and they make comics about random stuff. And their principal is Captain Underpants. But I was like, cool, cool, cool, why can’t I just do that? They’re doing it all the time, I’m literally in the same grade they’re in. I make drawings all the time, why don’t I just draw comics? So then I started drawing comics. When I was younger I was actually a bad kid, I was actually just very angry. I didn’t know what to do. Most of the area I was in, it was very strange, because a lot of people didn’t look like me, and my biography of my father being from Havana and my mother being from a different place- it was just a whirlwind of things I just couldn’t understand. I had a really good therapist in elementary school and she said maybe you need to have a focus, maybe you need to do a thing. I told her I liked drawing and she said, that’s fantastic, maybe you should do that every day. And yeah, I’ve continued to do it every day.
As I got older more therapists said you should just continue doing your artwork, continue keeping your heart rate up, going to the gym, keep a healthy, happy lifestyle and that will balance you. I had done all of this up until high school, being in band, being active… I actually didn’t do any art officially in school until my junior year of high school. Until I thought, man, I’m about to graduate, I’ve got to have a thing to do. So then I went to ETSU and I wanted to be a biochemistry major. Yeah…fantastic.
I love science, I love chemistry, I love the rigors of it and I love that x equals y and y equals some sort of reaction. But then I was bored with it. You know, it wasn’t my type of thing, so I decided to be on full time at ETSU as an artist and see how far it can take me. And I wanted to turn my hobby into a profession. So then it became therapeutic, it became, not just work, it became a thing I needed to for me, and they just fed into each other.
LS: What appealed to you about the Arrowmont Visions Internship?
JA: Beyond adventure, being home. I loved Arrowmont when I was younger and before Anakeesta, before all that, even past there [gestures to Gatlinburg strip], I remember it was trees. And it was always this beautiful little idea for me. Because all of Gatlinburg was totally different, but when I saw past the trees I could see the Arrowmont sign. I would come in, we would check out the gift shop, I would buy something, something small. I came back when I was older in 2013, 2014, and it was incredible- I was like they are still rocking stuff.
When I heard about this opportunity, I was like that’s really cool- I hope there are other BIPOC artists within the Appalachian region who will be able to apply, and then I received a notification from Kelly and Nick encouraging me to apply for this. I thought cool, this is for someone else, because I don’t know when I’ll be back.
I always wanted to be involved in an arts community where I was from. Because I love the area so much, I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to see it, I wanted to be in the middle of it, in the soup- I wanted to drink the kool-aid.
LS: You graduated from your MFA program in the Spring of 2020. What was it like finishing graduate school in the middle of a pandemic?
JA: My thesis show opened late February, early March. It was up for maybe a week and some change. I was having a studio visit with Park McArthur, and Mark Handelman (the department chair) walked in and goes, “Yeah, I don’t know how long we’ll be able to have classes, because COVID is here, it’s pretty close, and people have been shutting down.” And within the week I was in a drawing class I was teaching, I was teaching Drawing Fundamentals at the time. All my students and myself got a notification simultaneously and we all looked at each other and we knew. So they all had to evacuate campus. And then I took my friend to Times Square and it was just totally empty and I had never seen Times Square empty. The only thing I saw was this person in a full-on yellow hazmat suit. And I was like, gotta go, guess I’m done. I packed what I could, emptied my studio as much as I could. It took me two, three days. I grabbed everything in my apartment, threw it in my car, and drove back. My show was still up there, until a few months ago. A show for no one. Or for everyone, or a show for posterity. What I thought was so cool, the world’s ending, I have a show that’s hung up. The world’s going to end, and a hundred years from now, everyone will be like what is this?! Who did this?! And I would be somewhere else, in the ground, laughing away.
At that time I was accepted to a residency at the Chautauqua School of Art which was all online. I took five classes- which was a lot, but I wanted to get as much as I could out of it and meet people, but it was tough. There was this intimacy with my laptop, I loved my laptop, it was a part of me. I would wake up in the mornings, I’d go to the gym, or I’d work out, or I’d go run. I’d eat some breakfast, I’d talk to my family, and then I was on my laptop all day. I had a residency at ETSU I was working at as well to be able to make the clay that I was using which I had never done. I had never made clay before in my life, and here I was, making clay, coming back home, making videos, writing, reading, writing some more, having thoughtful conversations, reading, more people, and then it just kept going to where I just couldn’t stand it. But then also that was just my professional life, that was just my academic career. That’s not even considering what was going on in my actual life- my family were in dire straits. I had a lot of really horrible and great things happen simultaneously and I was also trying to make sure my grandmother was ok. It was a baffling experience for me. And then I graduated on the couch. It was so wild. I had my little cap and my stole but I actually didn’t get my gown. My family sat on the couch with me. They were like oh that was pretty easy. We just turned it off, and I wore the hat and stole for a little bit. And then I just walked around town with it for a little bit, and then I thought this is ridiculous and I took it off.
LS: Is the landscape where you grew up similar to here?
JA: Very. It’s about two hours from here. We used to live in the city of Bristol until we moved out to Washington County. We live in a holler that’s inside of a valley. After the house fire we had in 2001, we became farmers and we farmed the land. And that’s just how we began to live. It was really nice, and it was very quiet. There is something about it- I don’t want to say mystical- there’s something mysterious, there’s something there. And it’s different than when I went to Pennsylvania, and saw their national park. The landscapes here have a certain sort of pedestrianess. It’s not like Pennsylvania, where the forest feels dense, it feels lush, it feels viridian. Here it feels like green/gold, it feels stale, not as in the term of old, but stale as in brittle and brown, and these deep rich siennas. It’s so much more about the earth here than it is about the vegetation.
LS: What kind of farm does your family have?
JA: So we only did vegetables, that was the only thing we did. I actually grew a lot of serranos , habaneros and onions. My grandma would do squash and cucumbers and green beans. Oh my god, we had so many green beans. I can not state how many green beans we had. And my brother grew a lot of watermelons. He always grew the off-shoots or the most difficult things, and then we all worked simultaneously on the herb garden. But it was nice that we kept things for ourselves. We’d trade some of our stuff for eggs or for jars of honey at the apiary, which is literally a couple minutes down the road. We only really ever visited the store for meat- unless we went out hunting. Of which, I don’t like hunting as much. I don’t like killing an animal. Only out of necessity. Only when we were actually hungry. Because then there’s so much meat. And that’s so much time, you know. And you have to use every part. Then that’s a segue into how I started thinking about natural pigments and what I can use.
For a long time, between sophomore and junior year I was making pigments from the land. I was making brushes using furs, I was using wood styluses, and I would paint with mud for a lot of the time.
Expanding on this practice later in a myth and ritual class at ETSU, I found that you could make rabbit skin glue. I did not know this at the time. But there’s just so much that goes into hunting an animal, that we were like, we can’t do this anymore, so we’d just go fishing.
LS: What are your favorite tools or materials to use right now in your painting practice?
JA: I’ve always liked using Japanese and Chinese calligraphy brushes. I really enjoy them, mostly because the lengths on them are so long, but also their density and the springiness in them. They change. They’re varied, so you can do so much, and there’s so much variation within a line or within a brushstroke that I just love. I think they carry drawing to a different space. Right now I’ve been using a lot of iridescent inks, and these interference watercolors that I bought from Kremer a few years ago. I like to weave them in the drawings, but not make them the statement. Sometimes I will place them as an under drawing, and I will draw with them for a minute, mixed in with either a black walnut ink that I made, or one my friend from Rutgers, Kyle B. Co, gave to me. Either that or just regular ink. I like blending them together and weaving them out. I’m alway using Arches or this strange paper that I got from Carriage House Paper in New York. They’re not a walk in store- I think they just do stuff for commission. But they have a walk in area where you pick up your stuff- and there they gave me this gigantic pile of samples- an insane amount of random paper. And I thought, great! I’m done! I don’t need anything else, I’m done, this is perfect. They’re so different, they vary so much. But it keeps me on my toes, because I have to bring myself and understand that there is a different landscape I need to approach.
LS: Do you listen to music in the studio when you work?
JA: It really depends on what I’m doing. If I’m making gesture drawings, or if I’m making thumbnails, or I’m just starting to figure it out. If I’m going through the ideation process, I have some sort of neo-soul, some sort of R&B on. I’ve been really into smooth jazz. A lot of neo-funk as well and a lot of spoken word. I’ve been listening to a lot of Anderson Paak, a lot of The Roots, and yeah they’ve been really interesting. A lot of Kill Bill, always incredible. Because it’s funky and there’s some sort of beat to it and it keeps me on the rhythm, keeps me on the cadence. And there is a drive to it, a pace, and I’m like alright I can keep going, like doo doo doo doo doo, and I’m in the jam.
Or if I’m doing something methodical, if I’m rendering something- like this bush or this car, or what have you, its a podcast I’ve been listening to: the Myth and Legends Podcast. Essentially they talk about old tales or mythologies and they retell them. He puts them in scope, and then translates them the best he can…He has a really great delivery and its one of my favorite podcasts because of his delivery. He’s very conversational, he pops in, he talks about stuff. And also the Black in Appalachia Podcast, which is really great because it helps me not only know about the area, but it helps me know about my own biography and the history of my own race within this area. They are very informative and I don’t think they get enough credit. They live here in the area (I believe) and they’re just going around, going from town to town, going through high school records, finding out who did what and why and they’re doing oral histories with other people of color here. It’s a PBS program too. And I’m like oh wow, y’all are doing the work. Y’all are out here, finding family and giving a solidified basis to it. That’s good work. I really enjoy that entire organization and what they’re doing. They had an exhibition in Jonesboro about Black histories, about Black community leaders and I think it was just so fantastic. I would like to work for that organization, because it’s just such an anthropological thing to do- they are finding things and piecing them together.
I think having a visual artist is what solidifies a movement or solidifies an anthropological study or a study itself. Otherwise you have all this text, photos and archives, but the real heightening is when you have the resplendence of some sort of visual work, or some sort of poetry, or music or a companion piece that goes with it.
LS: You play the drums, the marimba and bells. How did you get started playing music?
JA: Band. In middle school. They did the rounds in fifth grade and they were trying to see who liked playing. They brought a bunch of instruments and were like, who wants to play in the band? And going back to my therapist, I needed a focus. I also wanted to learn how to read sheet music, I wanted to learn music. I thought this was a really cool way. I stayed with it from middle school all the way up, after I graduated high school and a little bit in college as well. I don’t think I was very good, but also I don’t think the directors and I communicated as well as we all wanted. It was one of those things like, you’re having a hard time doing this…If they gave me a task I was all about it and I would still play it to my heart’s content. I had bought a ninety or one hundred dollar bell kit with a snare pad. I would love to continue doing music in a different way, and I’ve carried it outside of that, but I think it was so informative for me, being around that. I think it’s helped my cadence, it’s helped my poetry, it’s helped my ear, and it helps me establish how I can weave some sort of sonic branding within my work now and I really enjoy that aspect.
LS: Do you write music on the bells?
JA: I used to, but no I don’t write anymore. The bells, it’s incredible. They’re very obnoxious. My grandmother hated me because they would ding, but it’s a high pitch and it’s a sharp sound. They’re very sharp. Whereas the marimba it’s a resonation, like a WAAAAH. But the bell, you strike it and it’s a sharp piercing sound. It’s a pretty sound, but it’s sharp. So it becomes obnoxious after a long amount of time.
LS: Grandma didn’t like it when you practiced the bells?
JA: No. Not inside. It was not a thing. So I played a lot on the porch or out in the yard. I think they are really great for melodies. I don’t ever want to do some sort of long trio on the bell set because it takes you somewhere else and it’s like a sharp ragged sound. It’s like you take glass and put it in a bucket and you throw it and they land in the perfect way, the perfect syncopation. But you know, they work in bits. I don’t want to hear a whole piece in bells. No way. Interconnected, maybe through a hook or a couple of measures, or maybe after the fourth line, it appears, it changes, or it breaks up the repetition, something like that to add a bit of atmosphere. But when it comes to a long, engaging rhythm- go to a marimba, all day. Because it gives you the same notes, but it gives you a resonance and it changes the atmosphere.
LS: If you weren’t an artist, what would you be doing?
JA: So if the art thing didn’t work out, I would be a luchador in Mexico. To be totally honest, I love that idea. You’re masked, but you’re also a town hero. A luchador is a Mexican wrestler, they make their own masks, they build their identity- they are community heroes. They’re down there giving stuff you know? Like cool, you need your lawn mowed, like a handyman. But then also every Thursday I’m out there wrestling people, putting someone in an arm bar or a chokehold, and that’s just neat…The whole idea of it is just so damn cool to me.
Jonathan Adams’ (b. 1991, Bristol, VA) drawings display an otherworldly confluence of mythical and historical narratives as they relate to personal and collective histories. Adams’ excavates our psychological, symbolic, and social ghosts—represents the turbulence, the mud and fog, the twists and turns, of contemporary black life after death. Experiences of growing up in the culturally complex Appalachian region of the American South – notably early experiences in the church (Beasts and mythology of scripture), family drug abuse, systemic class racism and southern mysticism inform the sensational imagery present in the work.
Conversing with horror imagery, beasts and perversions of religion set in an apocryphal Appalachia, Adams’ strives to understand the absurdities of the world around him. Each piece begins as writing and/or photography from a place of emotional vulnerability. The process of translating research materials into a visual language becomes a meditation on the subject and removal of the bias. Adams’ uses travel-as-personal essay, an outer journey that reflects an inner journey. Through comparing the subjects within this journaling process, sheds light on and creates a discourse around veiled narratives such as humanization of black diaspora and facets of power structures. Each piece is an aspect of a larger narrative furthering the story in different ways by their juxtaposition to other pieces. Physically, the work engages with monetary materials such as precious stones and metals. Layering these materials together feels akin to working in alchemy and furthers the conversation of what these expensive materials can be used for beyond adornment.
Moreover, the materials create a visual dimension in juxtaposition to the flatness of the ink, the interjection of such items represents the interruption of magic within the norm. Ultimately, the work seeks to exist as artifact to arrest power of Adams’ bi-racial narrative and correct black Appalachian canon. Artists inspirations currently, are Kara Walker, Honoré Daumier, Mark Thomas Gibson, Sesshū Tōyō, Takehiko Inoue, Giovani Tiepolo, Angela Dufresne and Charles White.