Jon Nowell, An Interview

by Greg Gandy

We interviewed painter Jon Nowell about his process and where he is currently.

Greg Gandy (GG) : So Jon, you’ve been painting…

Jon Nowell (JN): Yeah…

GG: A lot. (laughter)

GG: So the last time I saw (a large body of) your work was in Starkville before the show at the Greater Jackson Arts Council, and you were doing a lot of geometric, hard-edge, smaller work on panels. And I think I saw a sculpture or two.

JN: Yeah, I was primarily doing sculpture. In school that’s what i was doing. I was learning. Just trying to develop a bag of tricks. Learning how to make things. And then I’d kinda paint when I wasn’t doing school. And I was always there (mentally). I’ve had a fascination with the history of it, painting. But the last time you saw me I was probably learning how to weld or develop those tricks. Now it’s a little different. I’m in a different environment, you know. I’m trying to think about what you can do with less. So the flatness of the painting is nice because you can go big in a small space.

GG: So right now you are not in school. You are working by yourself in a studio.

JN: Yeah.

GG: You’ve got your own space, which is awesome. And now that you are working on your own I’m seeing a lot more color, a lot more figures, and, for lack of a better term, abstraction. Even when you were doing geometric work it was still a solid image. It was very precise. Now you are loosening up, using brush strokes, and using bigger canvases. How is that affecting your work?

Stringer o’ Cats and a Softshell
Stringer o’ Cats and a Softshell

JN: Well it all really just steams from that transition that you just talked about. From embracing the fact that, “Okay I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna do what I want.” And try to let as much of my own intellect, my own brain, my motor or whatever it is, show itself through an image or a painting or a sculpture or really anything. That really didn’t happen until I got out of school. Until it kinda became real. You get out there and you have all these decisions to make. What are you gonna do? What kind of are am I going to make? How are you gonna start your career? And all those things. You are always kinda faced with this problem of finding out who you are. Who I am.

GG: Well this is my first time seeing all these painting in person, and they are pretty incredible. You’ve got some that look like they are starting out, and they have a lot of text. I know from my personal experience that I’ve had a hard time merging line from text with color in my paintings. Usually it ends up being all text or all color. Have you had that problem or how are you solving that problem?

JN: I think anyone who tries to make a picture or image or some sort of condensed thing that we see as art, we are really concerned with what we put on there. Like, “You can’t put that word on there because it is too obvious,” or “Too try hard,” or whatever you want to call it.

ask yourself, “What does it look like?”

GG: The eternal question…


GG: Or, “You can’t even put a word on there.”

JN: Yeah (laughter) “No words allowed.” “No photographs pasted to your painting.” There are these rules that you may hear people talk about in school, or they may just be kinda understood. (No one does them) for fear of being trite or obvious.

GG: But you have to get that stuff out of the way just to develop.

JN: I think the words are coming through on some of these paintings as a way to just smash that model and get over being afraid of people seeing who you are. And to consolidate all those things you ingest visually, through the radio, through books and reading, or the dialogue of other people. All that information goes somewhere. Some of this (the new paintings) is sorta just spiting that back out so I can move on to the next thing. So it (merging text and color) makes perfect sense, I think. But then you have to ask yourself, “What does it look like?”

The Roundabout
The Roundabout

GG: The eternal question…


GG: So is this how you destroy your canvas to begin with to develop your figures or to help your imagery or is this closer to the final stage?

JN: Um… That’s a hard question at this point.

GG: Well I’m asking because if you look at these other paintings, there is definitely elements of line. (short discussion of line use in contrast to flat swatches of paint on Jon’s finished paintings)

JN: Those sort of lines and direct drawing, like the drawing of a letter, it’s more of an obstacle. I put an obstacle there. I put a drawing as obstacle because I hate it or I love it, but then I have to deal with it. And really that is all painting is about. Putting this color next to that color.

GG: Choice. Is that what you are saying? It is all about choice?

JN: Yes. Decisions.

GG: So if you have a bunch of different things you’ve messed up or if you are putting a bunch of different things on the canvas, vomiting up all these words, then you get to make a decision about what stays or what goes. And then once you take something out, it changes the whole painting so you then have to make choices about what happens next. So that’s what helps you get the ball rolling?

JN: Yeah, I think an obstacle or adversity is alway good thing. To start playing games with yourself while you are painting, there is nothing more fun.

This is good for you
This is good for you

GG: Well the paintings a product of the man. So how does that translate into your life as a painter?

JN: Mostly confusion, and embracing that confusion in the work. If I can let it serve as a sort of consolidation and to highlight the interconnectivity of ideas then I think art will eventually happen. It’s this sort of nuance that I’m searching for… to bring dimension to otherwise flat ideas.

Designed To Embarass
Designed To Embarrass

To view more work by Jon Nowell, visit his website:

Greg Gandy

Greg Gandy is a painter, designer, and arts event organizer currently living in Jackson, MS. He has given lectures on social problem solving at Tulane University, cultural cross-fertilization at the University of Southern Mississippi Honors College, and street art at Millsaps College and Jackson State University. Greg has spent the past decade organizing and mobilizing artists and creatives in Mississippi.