It’s not two minutes into my conversation with Sam Jones when a voice crackles to life over a loudspeaker.
I can’t understand what the voice is saying, but Jones does.
“Do you have to go?” I ask.
“No, they do,” he replies, gesturing to the ambulance behind me.
Which is good, because Jones, a firefighter with the city of Cincinnati for 27 years, is in the middle of perfecting an impressionist oil painting of a woman dancing (inspired by Misty Copeland, the principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in New York City) and he needs to focus. “I used to be a realistic painter, but I’m trying to change that,” he says, palette in hand. “People like realistic art, but it doesn’t sell as well as impressionistic art. The change hasn’t been as easy as I thought.”
That this is “hard” for someone who runs into blazing buildings for a living is mind-boggling, but it fits with Jones' quiet, easy-going demeanor. Cincinnati Refined recently met with the Cleves resident at Station 46 in Hyde Park, where we talked about his hybrid profession, where he finds inspiration, and what happens when his artistry gets interrupted by a fire.
Cincinnati Refined: A burly fireman who’s also a sensitive artist — are you for real? *
Sam Jones: [Laughs] A lot of people say that. But I’ve been an artist my entire life. I came from a family of artists. I have four brothers and four sisters, and we’re all artists. We grew up having art contests. We got it from our dad.
CR: How did you become a fireman then?
SJ: I started in the military because I wasn’t ready to devote myself to art. I had to make money! When I got out of the military, I went into factory work for a little bit, then construction. I was a plant operator with Cincinnati Water Works, where — because I did 12-hour shifts — I was able to sit down and doodle a bit. And then I heard about the fire department, and I’ve always wanted to be a fireman. But I started on the big company downtown, and I wasn’t able to paint like I am here. This is a bit slower.
CR: Is it hard when your creative process gets interrupted by a call?
SJ: I’m used to it now. Even when we do get a run, we’re back pretty quickly and it doesn’t really affect me getting time to work on my art. I didn’t use to be able to paint around people, but when I got here, people come in all the time. [Though] I will say, when I’m doing a portrait, I need peace and quiet because all that detail requires concentration. And that’s another thing... painting relaxes me. I sit here and just let myself go into my art and not think about what could happen.
CR: What inspires your paintings?
SJ: Some are dreams. Some I have an idea in my head and I’ll go on the internet and type “horses” and go through the images. I try to work from pictures 90 percent of the time, even if it’s something from a dream. A lot of times I’ll sketch, too. I was on the beach this summer and saw these guys walking; I thought it was neat, so I took a picture and then sketched it.
CR: You mentioned a change from realistic to impressionistic painting. Why has that been hard?
SJ: I thought it would be easy because it looks easier, but when you’re doing impressionistic artwork, you need to be looser — you want to feel free and flow, and that’s hard when I’m very meticulous with what I do.
CR: What do people say when they walk by the firehouse and see you at work?
SJ: A lot of people stop in; many are also artists. One guy came in just last week because his wife is an artist. She does portraits and has studied in France, and it was really great to talk to him. We talked for about an hour and a half. School kids will come in. Last year, we had a kid that would get off school and come play guitar while I painted. Then a couple of their friends started to come in. It was pretty cool.
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Jones’ paintings are on display at the Greenwich House Art Gallery, located at 2124 Madison Road, as well as Station 46 just off Hyde Park Square. Or, you can get a glimpse by clicking through the gallery above.
*Sorry, singles, Jones has been happily married for 19 years, with two kids.