Exhibit features famed Ohioans from Johnny Appleseed to Jenny Mae

Artist Rob Jones created 150 portraits for a staggering new exhibit now on display at the Columbus Metropolitan Library downtown.
A cross section of the portraits on display at the downtown library
A cross section of the portraits on display at the downtown libraryRob Jones

Sometimes while working on a portrait, Rob Jones will run out of real estate on the page.

Rather than starting over – something he’s loath to do – the artist will tape another sheet or two of paper to the original image and continue drawing. It’s a small touch, but the impact can be massive. Such is the case with Jones’ portrait of Columbus painter Bryan Moss, which has a page taped on each side to catch the flowing strands of his hair bursting from under the artist’s hat.

“It’s still him [without that detail],” Jones said recently at the Columbus Metropolitan Library downtown, where he currently has 150 portraits of notable Ohioans on display – one in a series of exhibits curated by Stephanie Rond as a means to celebrate the library’s 150th anniversary. “But this way you get more of the personality. … I don’t like to start over, and I don’t like to waste all the time, all the materials you already put in there. So, how can you fix it? I could have scratched all that and gotten a bigger piece of paper, but why?”

These kinds of handmade touches lend Jones’ portraits a desired weathered quality, with some containing visible tape lines or loops of thread stitched through the page. Others have been folded multiple times and the creases then sanded to amplify the effect, as though the portrait had long been stored in a wallet. And still others are stained with coffee, crumbled and otherwise roughed up.

“When it looks old and weathered, it gives [the portrait] a history,” Jones said. “I have a photo of my Great, Great Uncle Bobby from World War I, when he had just gotten there, and it’s beat up and gray and folded. He had it with him through all of that crap, and it has this feeling to it that newer, crisper things just don’t have. So, visually I like it, but I’m also drawn to the otherworldliness of this time period that’s so far removed from now.”

Jones, who teaches art at Olentangy’s Freedom Trail Elementary School, said finding his own voice as a painter has been a gradual process of letting his style deteriorate, not only embracing imperfection but at times leaning into it. “It started once I graduated college, when I didn’t have money for art supplies, so I just started painting on found wood and really embracing found objects,” Jones said. “And then it was carrying that over into the oil paints and the inks, and just leaning into that roughness and that sense of history. … I know my students are only in elementary school, but I want them to realize art doesn’t have to be perfect. The mistakes give it the human quality people are drawn to.”

In selecting subjects for the exhibit, Jones cast an impressively wide net, creating portraits of iconic underground musicians (Jenny Mae Leffel, Camu Tao, Ralph Carney), disgraced, larger-than-life politicians (James Traficant), historical figures (Johnny Appleseed, James Thurber), Columbus writers still operating at the height of their powers (Hanif Abdurraqib, Maggie Smith, Scott Woods) and a smattering of artists who have inspired Jones along the way (Dan Gerdeman, Queen Brooks, Richard “Duarte” Brown, Aminah Robinson, Reaghan Buchanan). There are also a couple of fictional easter eggs planted among the real-life figures, including Tommy Callahan, the Ohio-born heir to an auto parts factory played by the late Chris Farley in the 1995 comedy “Tommy Boy.” (Portraits of deceased individuals are accompanied by a gold leaf halo.)

For Jones, the exhibit doubled as a research project, allowing him to lean into a love of history initially stoked in him by his father, a history teacher who Jones said habitually dragged the family to any historic site within driving distance. 

“The Ohio History Connection, their feed on Instagram is fantastic, and they would post some profile of an Ohioan that nine times out of 10 I hadn’t heard of, and then that would lead me to others, which would eventually send me to where I was weaving my way down this rabbit hole,” Jones said. “I wanted to get a wide variety of professions, of personalities, so one would lead to another to another to another.”

Of course, Jones interests are well reflected, including a heavy dose of musicians – a craft to which he has long been drawn in part because it remains something of a mystery. “I have no rhythm; I don’t understand chords,” he said. “And really, I think it would dispel the magic if I learned how to do it.”

Other portraits are tributes to those who helped him along the way, including Penny Donahue, who served as a mentor when Jones first started teaching. “So, there are a few people who really got me going, and who I wanted to pay homage to,” Jones said. “And then I wanted to be sure to get an amazing cross-section of the community. … And now that it’s done, I kind of feel like I should continue it because I keep coming across people who I had no idea were from Ohio, or that I completely forgot about, like [free jazz innovator] Albert Ayler from Cleveland. There are all of these artists and musicians and people that I’m only finding and remembering now that it’s all said and done.”

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