For Inspiration, Mary Jones Takes to the Streets

If you wanted to take a scenic walk in Des Moines, you might head to Gray’s Lake or the Principal Riverwalk.

But East 14th Street? Probably not — and that’s exactly why it appeals to Mary Jones. The artist’s walks along the street have inspired a series of map-based collages that she’ll display in “The Looking Dress,” the next show in the Iowa Arts Council’s Art at the Café series. It opens with a reception on May 4 and remains through July 31 at Café Baratta’s in the State Historical Building of Iowa.

“What I see are people’s daily lives, how they actually live,” she said. “On East 14th, people aren’t dressing to be seen. They’re going to laundromats and things like that. They’re not always expecting that someone is watching them.”

A work in progress from “The Looking Dress” series by Mary Jones.

Jones lives in Indianola and often drove East 14th (Highway 69) on her way to Grand View University, where she taught art and design until she retired in 2017. But over the last few years, she’s parked the car here and there to explore the area on foot.

She takes photos. She jots notes in a notebook. She collects newspapers and receipts from cups of coffee she buys along the way, all to add to the layers of her artwork.

She sees. And she is seen, which is partly why big eyes started showing up on the clothing of the people in her artwork. That’s what inspired the title, “The Looking Dress.”

“When I’m looking, I’m also aware of being looked at,” she said. “I think that’s true of everyone who’s out in a public space or common area.”

“The Looking Dress As Seen in Indianola Hills, 2018” by Mary Jones.

Jones is interested in how neighborhoods form and evolve. She notices how people become attached to their particular patch of the planet, how they personalize their homes or shops.

In Chicago, where she grew up and worked as an illustrator — she’s published work in the Chicago Tribune and Playboy, among others — she watched what happened when Interstate 90/94 replaced a smaller state road. When the zoning changed, so did the area’s mix of businesses and overall character.

Mary Jones is working on a walking-inspired art project with her daughter, who lives in New York and recently took this photo of her mother outside the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Jones didn’t learn to drive until she was 40, partly because she relied on Chicago’s public transportation but also because she just prefers to walk. Now 67, she says the physical activity frees her mind to think in new directions.

But oddly enough, in her step-by-step quest to find a sense of place, she also found an irony.

“I find I’m thinking about other places,” she said. “Everything I see brings up another memory.”

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