When alumnus Ben Jones ’63 was a student at what was then Paterson State College, the art majors “were like a community, and the professors were so giving of their time to us.”
His studies on campus, at the beginning of a time of great societal change, launched a six-decade career of creative expression as an artist and educator that is featured in a retrospective exhibition on view through December 8, 2023 in the William Paterson University Galleries in the Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts.
Many of the 28 works in The Universe of Ben Jones—bold, insightful, and in a visual language all his own—have rarely been exhibited or are on display for the first time. The exhibition is part of a year-long collaboration between William Paterson University and New Jersey City University funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to celebrate Jones, a WP alumnus and a New Jersey City University professor emeritus of art.
Throughout his career, Jones has focused on interconnections and relationships between global issues including politics, health, the environment, racism, and capitalism, among others. “The imagery is both figurative and abstract, interacting and affecting,” he says in a statement in the exhibition catalog. “We cannot solve our ecological, political, and even spiritual problems in the world if we fail to see the relationships among these things.”
Born in Paterson and one of 15 children, Jones received his introduction to art at Eastside High School, where his art teacher, Roslyn Feinstein, served as a mentor, encouraging him to explore his talents. He enrolled at William Paterson and worked his way through school, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree. After graduation, he was an art teacher at Passaic High School; in 1967, he took a position at Jersey City State College, now New Jersey City University, where he taught for 43 years. He also earned a master of arts degree from New York University and a master of fine arts from Pratt Institute.
Co-curated by Casey Mathern, director of the William Paterson University Galleries, and Midori Yoshimoto, director of the New Jersey City University Galleries, the exhibition marks Jones’s first solo exhibition at William Paterson. The works trace his evolution as an artist, from self-portaits (including one rendered in 1960 while a WP student) and mixed media works that celebrate the Black experience, to paintings and prints that address social and environmental justice.
“An artist uses the things around him, and connects art with what we see in life,” he says. “I don’t make art just to make art. I want to be authentic.”
Jones has made nearly 100 cultural exchange visits to Cuba since the 1970s, and is noted by the Granma International of Havana, Cuba as one of the most important African American artists of his generation. For more than four decades, his multimedia installations have reflected his travel and research in Africa, Europe, South America, the United States, and the Caribbean. Jones has lectured at universities, museums, and cultural institutions across the world including Harvard University, Howard University, Savannah College of Art and Design, the Wilfredo Lam Center in Havana, Cuba, and the University of Ghana.
In addition to The Universe of Ben Jones, the year-long project also includes theatrical performances, multicultural collective music, and three William Paterson academic courses focused on art, community, and social justice. A companion exhibition, Constellations, featuring artworks by 17 artists who have been mentored and influenced by Jones, is also on view in the University Galleries through December 8.
Now 82, Jones continues to produce art and mentor other artists. His advice to young artists? “Be committed to what you do,” he says. “What is your voice? Find your voice. That is your journey.”
Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or by appointment and on Saturday, November 18 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Admission is free. For additional information, please call the William Paterson University Galleries at 973-720-2654.
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