Remembering Lowell Jones

Chico artist best known for his monumental kinetic sculptures

“WORMS MAKING LOVE” A month after this photo was taken, Lowell Jones disassembled this huge kinetic sculpture, trucked it to Manhattan, and set it up there. Inset: Jones with a scale model of “Big O’s.”

“WORMS MAKING LOVE” A month after this photo was taken, Lowell Jones disassembled this huge kinetic sculpture, trucked it to Manhattan, and set it up there. Inset: Jones with a scale model of “Big O’s.”

Photo By Robert Speer

In the spring of 1985, Chico artist Lowell Jones was preparing to do something unprecedented in the art world. Working in the back yard of his home on West Sacramento Avenue, he was putting the finishing touches on a huge sculpture that he would soon be installing in front of a 52-story office tower on Park Avenue, near Grand Central Station in Manhattan.

For an unknown sculptor to be able to site his first major commission in the heart of the world capital of art was unheard of.

Jones, who died on Nov. 22 at age 69 after living with cancer for four years, hoped the piece, called “Performance Machine, Big O’s,” would be a breakthrough for him, but it didn’t happen. He made one other, similar sculpture for the same company that bought “Big O’s,” the Canadian construction firm Olympia & York, that was sited in Orlando, Fla., but he never again had the money to do another large-scale piece. (A small-scale version of “Big O’s” is located in the foyer of the Chico Municipal Building.)

A solid, handsome man with thick hair and beard and callused hands who wore working-man’s blues and boots most of the time, Jones gave no hint that he’d gotten an MFA degree at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy, in Michigan, and had been a professor of art at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, before moving to Chico in 1978 to make art full-time.

He never made much money here and lived frugally, believing that he was being kinder to the Earth that way. His kinetic sculptures were solar-powered because he wanted to show how easy it was to adapt the sun’s energy to human needs.

He was a skilled lithographer and draftsman, and his prints and drawings, the latter usually in charcoal, frequently appeared in group exhibits around town. The black-and-white drawings, still lifes of cows in fields or rooms of furniture or female forms, were notable for their sensuous curves and exacting shadings.

Kinetic, or moving, sculpture was his great passion, however, and he spent the last two decades of his life working on various smaller projects. He’d always been mechanical, even as a boy growing up in Bellevue, Iowa, on the Illinois River. He served four years in the Navy as a radarman on aircraft carriers and worked summers while in college as a railroad brakeman. And, in Chico, when his art didn’t bring in enough money, he restored classic British autos, Morris Minors especially, to make up the difference.

It’s hard to overstate the brilliance of “Big O’s.” One of the challenges of sculpture is that it must sustain its esthetic integrity when viewed from any direction. A piece that changes shape constantly makes even greater esthetic demands. Inside “Big O’s” was a small electric motor that powered the slow movement of the piece. Unlike most kinetic sculpture, which moves rapidly, this piece moved so slowly its motion was imperceptible. But if you left for an hour and came back, it would have changed shape. In terms of engineering and mechanics, it’s a marvel.

Large and black, with four sensuous fiberglass “arms” that slowly turn, closing like interlocked donuts, then opening out, the piece suggests a wealth of natural images—a flower blossoming, water-smoothed rocks, even “two fat worms making love,” as Jones once put it, laughing.

Jones lived alone, but he had many friends in the Chico art community and also enjoyed the enduring love of his ex-partner, Carolyn Zimmerman, her husband Mike and her children Annika and Behr, who were family to him. It was the Zimmermans who cared for him in his final days. A memorial service will be held in the near future.