For Jones Artists, the Reward is in the Work

Inaugural award recipients are busy adding residencies, museum exhibitions, and gallery shows to their resumes

Video by Zainob + Matthew Create

By Molly Glentzer, contributor 

Sometimes what an artist needs to make a good work great is encouragement. And the nine inaugural recipients of Houston Endowment’s Jones Artist Award got that — and more.

Shavon Aja Morris initially proposed her poetic triptych Framework, for example, as a work on paper. The text is from a story she wrote, told from the point of view of a daughter recalling her mother’s beauty ritual. The narrator details how her mother favored a particular brand of face powder because it was made near her home, also describing how she scrubbed off the chestnut-colored makeup with ragged T-shirts, preferring to dirty her colored clothes rather than her white towels. “There was a hope that bleach promised,” Morris wrote, “but I suppose that hope was fleeting.”

Framework by Shavon Morris featured in Salvation Is My Heart on Display.
Photo: Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

The story, of course, is not really about makeup. Framework explores identity, memory, and family history. It also is a masterful work of printmaking, debossed onto a rich, honey-hued leather that, aside from its expense, is literally and thematically weightier than paper. The leather gestures symbolically to branding (referencing both the history of livestock ownership and the contemporary connotation of product promotion), luxury and craftsmanship (which suggest resilience), and emotional resonance (nostalgic warmth and comfort).

“Themes and ideas are more important to me than processes and methods,” Morris says, “but the Jones Artist Award gave me permission and the confidence to pursue one of the lingering ideas I had.” Financial support was an important part of the equation, since the leather alone for Morris’s project cost $2,000. Stipends for the inaugural awards ranged from $4,000 to $12,000, significant enough to embolden the artists to create work they might not otherwise tackle.

Morris’s work hung during the first group Jones Artist Awards show last year alongside photographs by Jakayla Monay, paintings by Raul Rene Gonzalez and ceramics by Jessica Phillips in the exhibition Salvation is My Heart on Display. Corey De’Juan Sherrard Jr.’s multi-disciplinary solo show followed. The second group exhibition, Where is Home?, featured textiles by Nela Garzón, photographs by Lorena Molina, digital animations with recorded interviews by Sneha Bhavsar and watercolors by Marcos Hernández Chávez.

The 2023 awardees all were going places before they were selected, and now they are busier than ever, adding residencies, museum exhibitions, and gallery shows to their resumes.

Morris no longer has access to presses – the Printing Museum Houston, where she was a resident artist, recently closed. Her most recent works are photographic collages, but she is still sharing stories about Black women from different perspectives. “From the work on leather to now, there is a throughline of connecting the past to the present and relating history,” she says. Some of those works are on view this spring at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. Along with Garzón and Gonzalez, Morris also has work hanging in “Vernacular Systems: the 2024 CAM Perennial Exhibition” at Blue Star Contemporary in San Antonio.

Flying Solo – With Some Help

The boost from Houston Endowment came at an especially exciting time for Sherrard, the solo show artist. Two years ago, he wasn’t sure how he would build a career in art. He graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree in digital media in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was making ends meet by working seven days a week at three jobs. He began to get a clearer view of his future working with two influential mentors, Jamal Cyrus and Tierney Malone, who share his interest in jazz, Black history, and culture. He was on the cusp of a breakout moment when he applied for the Jones award.

Sherrard now defines his interdisciplinary process as “engineering a developing system for composing songs and generating objects that respond to the deficit of Black radical propaganda within world culture.” Receiving the award enabled him to upscale and polish his first major body of work, Songbook for Black Constellations, for Trio, a series of abstract paintings with corresponding original music. “I wanted to tap into making abstract art that coincided with jazz music,” Sherrard explains. “I’m not necessarily the type of artist that can make things for the sake of beauty itself. I was interested in making work that had a system that pulled everything together. I figured out a system that worked for me.”

The layered paintings of the Songbook series present data on Black demographics and institutions across the U.S. Most viewers will first notice their chalky, gestural lines (inspired by the work of Cy Twombly), which connect points on invisible maps. “When I work on the lines, that’s my time to just kind of move with the panel,” Sherrard says. “It’s kind of like jazz that way. That’s where the improvisation happens.” He composed a brief musical score for each painting with notes derived from its plotted points. He then performed the recordings that viewers hear through headphones, playing tenor saxophone alongside percussionist Joseph Hamilton and double bassist Richard Rodriguez.

Almost concurrently with receiving the award, Sherrard exhibited smaller Songbook works in solo shows at Sanman Studios and Sabine Street Studios. Some of those pieces went to an annual exhibition for emerging artists at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art near Chicago last fall. “It’s been a lot,” Sherrard says. “It’s been really good since [the Houston Endowment] show.”

This spring he is creating a new body of work for a group exhibition that opens in mid-May at Austin’s George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, where he is an artist in residence. Sherrard still works multiple day jobs, but they are closer to his passions: He spins jazz on Friday mornings at KTRU, lectures at the Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts, and does graphic design for Minaret Records, a Los Angeles jazz label.

Continuing Their Craft

Nela Garzón, whose work explores traditional crafts and world cultures, was thrilled to be included but still finds it a little ironic to be labeled ‘emerging’ at this point in her life. The tufted rugs of her Runners series, like all of her works, are made with traditional techniques that can take years to master. She has been at it more than a decade, participating in national exhibitions in her native country of Colombia and showing her work in New York, Georgia, Missouri and Florida as well as Texas. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston commissioned a temporary sculpture from her in 2022. She recently won a residency at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft that she hopes to begin next year.

In spite of those accomplishments, Garzón does not yet feel widely known as an artist. “I always joke that I am perpetually emerging,” she says. “To be part of the [Houston] Endowment show was very uplifting. It means there’s some recognition. Besides showing in an incredible building and space, it also means I’m being paid, which is wonderful.”

Jessica Phillips, who returned to ceramics after a career in graphic design, tends to work in isolation in her studio. She relished the chance the Jones Award gave her to discuss her work with others, including fellow awardees. “It’s been kind of an amazing feedback loop,” she says, “not only for opportunities — with a couple of solo shows and commissions and various pieces I’ve sold — but also having these interactions bring a new energy to my studio and inform the work.”

Lorena Molina, a native of El Salvador who teaches photography and digital media at the University of Houston, brings yet another perspective. She has exhibited her work around the U.S. for more than a decade, and before moving to Houston in 2021, she founded and directed a community gallery in Cincinnati. She is juggling multiple projects this year and applied some of her Jones Award stipend toward the costs of producing her monumental corn maze installation, At What Cost part: II. A major undertaking that also is supported by an Idea Fund grant and an award from the University of Houston, the installation debuted as a solo exhibition at Assembly Gallery, traveled to Sawyer Yards, and will soon be part of Corn and Mud, a traveling exhibition curated by Laura Augusta that opens later this year at the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso.

Molina now encourages her senior and MFA students to apply for the Jones Artist Award and other opportunities, even devoting lessons to creating the materials they need for applications, including CVs, letters of intent, artists statements, websites, and budgets. Those are skills every working artist needs, she says — as critical as acquiring technical skills and conceptual frameworks. “It’s important for them to put their work out there and have discussions with people outside the institution about their work. They’re all doing amazing work, and I think people should see it.”

The “wall of possibilities,” as described by Houston Endowment Program Director Bao-Long Chu. Photo: Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

A Look Ahead

Weingarten Art Group’s Ady Avivi and Olivia Kimbrell curate the program for the Foundation. They selected last year’s winners from among more than 140 open-call applications, dividing the works into two exhibitions and one solo show for a space within Houston Endowment’s lobby that has become a “wall of possibilities,” says Bao-Long Chu, Houston Endowment program director, arts and parks.

“While the Endowment has helped to support up-and-coming artists indirectly for decades with grants to organizations such as Lawndale Art Center, DiverseWorks and Art League Houston, the Jones Awards bring our staff into closer contact with the community we are serving,” explains Chu. “It brings to life how this funding support impacts individual voices.”

Works by the 2024 award winners will be displayed similarly across three exhibitions built upon a “time and memory” theme. The first group show of the year goes on view in April. The public will be able to view these works here.