In the brand new Print Shop towards the back of the Zootown Arts Community Center recently, Sarah Jones adjusted an etching press to the precise level she needed to emboss a dried flower stem. Once she had it just right, she cranked the wheel and let the paper layers flow through. When the materials came out the other side, she removed the top piece of paper to reveal an imprint of the stem — the plant’s “ghost.”
“My work has always been pretty focused on the botanical, on ideas of loss and ideas of things not being there — absence,” Jones said in a recent interview at the ZACC.
The artist from Seattle is the first to be selected for the ZACC’s new Laura Grace Barrett printmaking residency, a warm welcome from the Missoula art community for Jones, who moved here just two months ago. She and her partner had been looking for a place to settle and bring their long distance relationship together, with Missoula at the top of their list. After he landed a job at the University of Montana, the Garden City became home.
Barrett was a mixed media artist and gallery owner whose family donated her printing press to the ZACC upon her passing.
“In addition to naming the room after her, we decided that it would be perfect to introduce a residency program in her name to honor her work and her life as well,” said executive director Kia Liszak in an email. “We knew we wanted to start doing residencies in our new building, and it just unfolded very naturally as we learned more about Laura and talked with her family.”
Liszak said Jones’ proposal fit well with what they imagined the residency to be.
“We were really grateful that we could start the residency and continue with the program even with the uncertainty around COVID, and we are so glad Sarah was able to do it.”
During her time at the ZACC Print Shop, Jones will be continuing work on her ongoing project, “W(h)ither the Flowers,” which addresses the loss of plant species due to climate change and the grief that comes with it.
The project already features a series of herbarium sheets, which are 11 ½ by 16 ½ inch pieces of paper traditionally used to mount plants in order to store and archive them for scientific use. Jones used dried plants, flowers, ribbons and stitching to create her own artistic version of an herbarium sheet collection, which includes more than 20 unique and colorful designs.
Referring to these collections as “libraries of loss,” Jones said herbarium sheets are not only a record of a plant, “it’s a record of human culture, human ideas, human biases, but it’s also a record of our relationship with plants.”
Jones has been pressing plants since she was a kid and said she still comes across flowers from old dictionaries.
“And I worked as a garden designer when I was in Seattle, so I have a pretty strong botanical knowledge.”
She’s also drawn to the fact that botany was one of the few sciences considered appropriate for women at a time when the field was almost strictly made up of men. She said the women were often the researchers out in the field collecting specimens.
“I think a lot about women’s handiwork,” she said. “You’ll find when you look at historical herbarium sheets, they will often have a label that describes what the plant is, who collected it … and it will always have the main scientist’s name, which is usually a man’s name. Then down at the bottom it will say something like, ‘Collected by Mrs. Fred Robinson’ — sort of the invisible person at the bottom that you kind of go, what’s that story?”
Now, she’s expanding on her project, focusing on the idea of visualizing nonexistence.
“I keep trying to work with the idea of absence, like how do you represent absence? How do you make absence present?” she asked. “I thought printmaking would be a really good form for this … because so much of printmaking is about the negative. So when I found out that this residency was here, I thought, ‘Ooo I could chase that idea.’”
The embossed flower stem, which created a “ghost” of the plant where the absence of the flower is what’s visible, is one technique she’s used so far.
The residency runs for three months, and Jones is hopeful she’ll be able to hold a socially distanced opening to show her work and introduce herself to the art community at the end.
“I feel like I’ve been thrown a lifeline, because it’s been such a difficult transition, and it’s really thrown me off my center,” said Jones, who added she wouldn’t recommend moving during a pandemic, but she couldn’t ask for a better place to have landed. “It was a scary time to make that kind of a decision, but we decided that it was the most optimistic response to coronavirus that we could come up with.”
The pandemic has reframed her thinking around the themes of grief within her project in some ways too.
“We’re bombarded with numbers every day about what we’re losing, but we don’t really have a door into grieving, and I don’t really feel like we can effectively address what’s going
on until we allow ourselves to grieve,” she said.