Wanderings of an artist in the trenches.

Archive for May, 2011

Jeff Jones: 1944-2011


Hard to even begin this post. I did not sleep last night as Maria Cabardo had called me earlier in the day to tell me that Jeff was in a bad way. All day and night I was worrying for my friend, a parade of memories and his wonderful paintings in my mind.

And then the call this morning again from Maria to let me know that Jeff was gone.

I’ve lost one of my most important mentors and a good friend. The world is incredibly empty right now and so many have no idea what we’ve lost.

So here are some reminiscences that I hope will give you some idea about the Jeff I knew. It may be a lot of reading, and it may be somewhat disjointed and discombobulated, but it’s brain dump time. I want to get as much down as I can about my times with him:

When I was younger I was introduced to a pile of things I shouldn’t have been introduced to at the time by my cousin Jake. Thank God he did introduce me to this stuff. It helped steer the course of my life, and still does. Underground comics full of bizarre references to drugs and sex (my parents’ heads would’ve exploded if they’d known!), Frank Frazetta via the Lancer editions of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan”, Doc Savage paperbacks with those incredible James Bama cover paintings, — and National Lampoon. And in National Lampoon was “Idyl” by Jeff Jones! My eyes just about ejected from their sockets. The black and white line work totally transfixed me. Just blew me away.

Jump ahead. “The Studio” book comes out and it’s full of four of my favorite artists of all time: Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson and Barry Windsor-Smith. I loved the work of all these guys. I followed their stuff religiously, all were and continue to be wonderful sources of inspiration. But those paintings of Jeff’s killed me. I decided right there that I wanted to be a painter. That book changed my life. There’s no way to effectively describe the emotions that ran through me in looking at the work of all those guys at that time in my life. It was one of the most exhilarating and uplifting things ever. and I wasn’t alone. If you ask a lot of artists of my generation this book was a seminal event in their lives.

Jump ahead to art school. I went to Pratt Institute (no relation) and found myself (FINALLY) surrounded by like-minded people, individuals that were weird like me, that lived for lines and paint on paper or canvas and the sweet smell of turpentine. And one of the threads that ran through our collective consciousness was Jeff’s work and the Studio book.

Kent Williams and I in particular busted our asses to figure out how Jeff was doing what he was doing. Those were heady times! So much fun, drowning in paint and ink. We heard that Jeff was going to be at the New York Comic Convention, gathered various paintings and hustled over there. Jeff had a great setup with a couple of paintings, some watercolors and pen and inks. Mind blowing stuff, as usual. We were scared to death to meet him. But he was so relaxed, slumped in his chair and graciously looked at what we were doing.

I don’t remember what Kent, Sherilyn VanValkenburg or Ed Lee took that day, but I still have one of the pieces I took — a bad copy of one of Jeff’s ink wash drawings of Soloman Kane I’d done in oils.

I also took a bunch of watercolors and maybe a couple of pen and inks. Jeff was incredibly complimentary about all our works. Commenting on my Soloman Kane he said he’d never seen it in oil (meaning his piece). He asked me how I’d mixed the grey in the background and basically made us all feel like he was glad we were there. It was amazing. I asked him if he’d be interested in swapping pieces (I know, but it never hurts to ask, right?). And he did! We swapped watercolors that day.

Above: My first Jeff Jones Original. Traded on the first day I met him.

But the most amazing thing that day was Jeff asking us if we wanted to come upstate and go landscape painting with him. !!!!!!!!!!!

We wasted no time getting up there.

At that time he lived in a mobile home at the bottom of a mountain and across the road from a winding river.

It was incredibly natural out there, trees (Jeff Jones trees!), fields of grass, beautiful skies and clouds. Very idyllic. Inside the home was small, but ordered, not cluttered. He had a small painting area (and by this time we’d met J Muth who was living with Jeff at the time) next to the windows that looked out toward the mountain rising in the distance. Hung on a nail next to the window were a string of sleighbells used in various pieces of Jeff’s. On the walls were a few prints of Jeff’s paintings from “Queens Walk in the Dusk”.

I remember distinctly the sulphur smell of the water and that being pretty repulsive. So we drank wine. I remember Jeff pouring us all a glass and holding it up to the sunlight and asking us each to describe how we’d mix those colors. We all had a different way of getting there, but he said the interesting thing was we’d all probably mix pretty much the same thing. He had a little dinky watercolor set with a incredibly tiny watercolor brush that he thought was the funniest thing ever. Somewhere there’s a fun photo of Jeff with that thing, which I think Kent might have. And he talked about how alluring it was watching Bob Ross doing his paintings on television. “You find yourself wanting to really do it! I want to make happy trees!” We all had a great laugh over that.

Bernie Wrightson came over that day and showed us his pen and inks for Stephen King’s “The Stand”. We went to his house and helped him plant trees in his backyard and he agreed to go painting with us the next day, along with Dan Green, another great artist.

I remember Jeff playing America’s “Horse With No Name” on his guitar and thinking that the song was perfect for him. He played and sang quietly.

We slept in various places in Jeff’s home that night. Jeff in his room with the television set to static, white noise turned up really loudly. I could barely hear it where I was, but I bet Kent and Sheri had a time of it. They were on the floor next to the easels and I was in the costume room, a small closet off the hallway to J’s room. It was pretty tight in there, crammed with capes and things and paintings stacked against the walls! Paintings! Many that were unpublished! I didn’t get much sleep that night and spent my time studying those paintings. Soloman Kane, several unfinished pieces of vaporous little girls in amorphous landscapes, but oh, so beautiful. The paint quality! The values, the limited pallets! Jeff covered us in bear skins instead of sheets and the weight of those things and the smells they conjured just felt full of history! It was like being in NC Wyeth’s studio, that’s the weight that we attributed to all this.

We got up early, early, early. It was still dark out, pitch really. There was mist tumbling eerily down the mountainside and puddling in the valleys, half hiding the pines there. We piled into our cars and armed with thermoses of hot coffee wound our way through the Catskills on a silvery sliver of road that seemed to float in space. Bernie was telling ghost stories in the tight confines of the VW and our hair was standing on ends and it was gloriously, uncomfortably scary and exciting and completely unforgettable.

The light was slow to rise above the mountains, color limited but with the saturation being turned up like on a dimmer switch. We arrived at our destination and unloaded our easels and paints, and in the morning chill set up on a hillside looking down on a pasture that Jeff had gotten permission from a farmer for us to paint.

And we got busy.

Me, Dan Green, Jeff Jones, Bernie Wrightson

I was giddy. I was in heaven. This was like getting to paint with Rembrandt, quite literally, to me. I was totally in the moment and totally aware that I was one of the luckiest individuals at that moment in time in that place. I was right where I wanted to be. Where I had been directing my life hoping that I could some day do what my heroes were doing. And the most stunning thing of it all, was how easy going everyone was. How everyone just got along and was in the moment enjoying the company and the process and everything about it all. Jeff and Bernie were so very humble, so fun to be around. There was a great sense of doing something that nothing else could beat. The light was lighter, the air cleaner and more crisp than any before or since.

Me and J Muth

And it was a serious day for learning at the feet of our masters. Watching Jeff paint was a revelation. We had been struggling to emulate the effects of what we saw in his works through the printed medium. His paintings look so effortless, deceptively so. They seem to be a rare balance of delicacy and density, sensitivity and energy.

When we were landscape painting Jeff started with a simple line drawing, indicating shapes and positive and negative. He was designing from the get go. We, on the other hand, were seeing too much of everything in the field. We were trying to take it all in. Jeff focused on a manageable piece and designed the hell out of it. His compositions were so simple, iconic. He worked such a simple design into a sublime arrangement of simple value structure and limited color. And he attacked the canvas! Where we thought he was being dainty and delicate he was scrubbing the painting vigorously. It was an eye opener for us.

Then, after about thirty minutes, he would wander off into the woods and vanish. We continued to butcher our pieces, struggling vainly to pull the damn things around, trying to save the parts we liked, all the while killing them. Jeff would sort of show back up and look at what he was doing, assess it, then get back to it. That was another lesson. He didn’t just keep hammering at it trying to hew it out of the canvas against all odds. He assessed what he was seeing, looked at what it needed and solved for x. He taught by example, which is how all the best teachers I’ve ever had have taught.

Bernie was working like mad on his piece and it bore absolutely no relation to what was in front of all of us, but it made perfect sense for Bernie. His looked like a dark, mysterious wood and something unseen yet primordial was going to crawl out and rip your face off. But it was a cool painting!

Bernie Wrightson and Allen Spiegel

We painted a good long time that day, and many other days throughout the years, and they were always incredibly rewarding in so many ways. Friendships were forged through a love of art. Age was no hurdle.

As I said, Jeff was the door for me to the larger world of art. His paintings were the path to understanding what I was seeing in other painters. He truly was a spiritual artistic father in that way. He always related things in ways that seemed to be more than just about the act of painting or drawing, to connect more with life in general, how to live your life as an artist. Those lessons have stuck with me.

He talked once about being offered the Nick Carter paperback cover series, which would have been a lucrative and important feather in his cap at that time. He said that as he rode the train home thinking about the covers and the idea of all that guaranteed work, which was a good thing, also meant that he wouldn’t be getting to do the paintings he wanted to do. That it would tie him down. He said he could feel them sucking the life out of him and he hadn’t even done one yet. He got home and turned the job down.

Jeff was uncomfortable in the role of mentor or teacher. If we asked him directly about how to do something he seemed to tighten up and go silent. I think he didn’t want to steer anyone wrong. But if we were struggling with something and sort of just threw it out there in the process of working on it there would come forth a mountain of information spilling out of Jeff about light and color, shape building, value and neutrals and on and on. It was incredible and it was everything that we weren’t getting in our expensive store-bought educations.

I remember Jeff looking at one of my pieces for awhile, just looking. I don’t remember the piece itself, but it was one where I was really scoping out Sargent’s colors (or so I thought) and I had my pallet loaded with colors, I mean tons of colors. I was talking about how I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to control all that color and how I could’t figure how Sargent did it. Jeff thought awhile and then said that I basically had way, WAY too much color on the pallet. “You have too many choices. Just use one blue, one green, one red…” etc. So simple.

He also talked about “air”. That we’re not painting objects but the air between us and the objects. That objects were like vessels for air. And if I would severely limit my pallet, like taking just burnt sienna and viridian green and white, and go out landscape painting I’d begin to see what he was talking about. A warm, a cool and something to shift value. He said there’s no way to effectively explain it, you just had to experience it to “get it”. So I did what he said. Went out with those colors, or lack thereof, and painted. And I saw it immediately. Atmospheric perspective made more sense that day than any other.

He talked about the use of grays, colorful grays. How the grays hold it all together, “binds the galaxy together” to quote Star Wars. And then the color that you do use is important, and it has a purpose.

I got to go out drawing one time one-on-one with Jeff. We walked through the woods both with pads of paper and we each worked with litho crayon. I’d never used it before, but Jeff swore by it and said I should try it. We wandered about and drew trees, which was exciting because Jeff can really, really draw trees. But we just talked, sketched and walked. I don’t even remember what we talked about now, but somehow or other we got lost out there. We’d walked pretty far into the woods and I figured Jeff knew where we were. He didn’t. He said we didn’t just want to wander onto someone’s land and get shot or anything. So he sat and listened and said he could hear the water from the river or stream. We found it and followed it back and out of the woods.

We went to go eat and Jeff said he knew a good Chinese food place so he took me there before taking me to the train station. As we were walking up the steps to the restaurant Jeff cut one, loud enough for me to hear. I remember being surprised and then thought he’d done it on purpose because he wanted to make sure I knew he was human. We really were starstruck with him in the early days.

Jeff Jones Bat Heads and a Scott Hampton Bat Body

At one of the previous conventions where Kent and I had set up, which we did frequently while in school (an elaborate affair. We dragged around a large metal folding wall which we’d drape with white cloth and hang a large cow skull with peacock feathers sprouting from its eyes. Beneath all this we’d hang our paintings.). Jeff was at this one and, if I remember correctly, it’s the convention where we first met Allen Spiegel, J Muth, Mike Mignola and Bill Sienkiewicz for the first time. I had brought my hardcover copy of Robert E. Howard’s “Red Shadows” published by Donald Grant and illustrated by Jeff for him to sign. I asked him what it would cost to get a nice sketch in the book. He told me fifteen dollars would do it. I gave him the money and the book and he said he’d try and get it to me before the end of the convention. I remember him coming up to me on that last day and handing me the book and giving me my money back. He wouldn’t take my money. I tried to press it back on him, but he wouldn’t take it. He smiled and walked back to his table. Kent and I hunkered down and with shaking hands opened that book. Inside Jeff had drawn what has become one of my favorite images of his of Solomon Kane. Just incredible. One of my greatest treasures.

Here are a few other pieces I’ve been able to collect over the years:

I remember Jeff telling stories about the Studio days and us all laughing uproariously at the antics that got on in there. Him trying to grab mice from an aquarium with tongs and having them race up his arm. Bedlam. Blind Narcissus being lowered by rope and flying about like a kite! Great stuff. And he was so happy telling those stories.

I was on a plane ride going from New York to a convention and Jeff and I were on the same plane. I remember telling Jeff how I was trying to do more work out of my head as I was feeling trapped by my reference. He understood where I was coming from but said, “My work looks the way it looks because I shoot reference. I need that information, then I can play with it.” He said it was good that I was playing with doing stuff out of my head, but that the reference gives the work knowledge it wouldn’t otherwise have. He said he never understood why artists are embarrassed to use reference. It makes no sense. The artist shoots the reference, it’s their own photos, taken with their particular eye toward composition and light.

I remember Jeff sending me a copy of his first digital painting in an email. We were working on the sketchbook and I called him and told him it looked pretty fun. He said he didn’t like it because it didn’t give anything back. It was too antiseptic. He said he’d opened a jar of turpentine next to the computer so it would feel like he was really painting. We got a chuckle out of that.

I remember asking Jeff what it was like for him when he paints. He said he had to figure out how to do it every time. This was a relief to hear, and yet it was also the most terrifying. If it’s still hard for Jeff, where does that leave the rest of us?

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My notes from the trip to Upstate New York to help with the Jeff Jones documentary:

I just returned from traveling to upstate New York to help with the filming of the documentary on Jeff Jones that Maria Cabardo is directing. On returning I find myself saddened to tears at the state of Jeff these days.

I flew out of Tampa International on Wednesday after spending time with my children on my fiftieth birthday. I was supposed to spend a lot more time with them but was called by Maria Cabardo to finally fly up to see Jeff and interview him on film. As I was making the reservations my heart sank lower and lower as I realized I’d not be able to spend as much time with Georgie and Mary. I was very torn. But I also knew that I really did want to be in this film for a number of reasons: I do love Jeff dearly for everything he taught me about painting and being an artist and want to try (however futile) to repay him in any way I can. And after seeing some of the various clips from the film so far I felt that I could lend something different to the overall tenor of the production. With the exception of the other Studio artists, I would be one of the only people that had some direct dealings with Jeff as far as getting out to go landscape painting. So the chance to go up there and be with Jeff and get him to talk about when we did get out there and paint and what it meant to a young painter just getting his feet wet, was too much to resist. Yeah, I continually look for ways to thank him, even though he’s the worst guy on the planet at taking a compliment.

Maria Cabardo at Jeff’s the day of the shoot

So I arrived at midnight and was picked up by Maria. We spent the night at her place which was like a hotel as so many people were crashing there. We got up bright and early and headed into Manhattan to acquire a microphone which they were borrowing from a friend. After getting back into the car we found out, after testing, that the mic wasn’t really going to work for what we needed. So, off to B & H to just buy a new microphone. This proceeded to take up an inordinate amount of time and we left Manhattan rather late.

The drive went well and was quick enough and we arrived in Kingston in due time. Jeff is now living in a halfway house. I’ve never been to a halfway house (halfway to what? Halfway to nowhere, or halfway to salvation?) and did not know really what to expect. I had not seen Jeff for over ten years, since before my son, Georgie, was born. It was during my designing of his sketchbook and I had driven up with David Spurlock and interviewed Jeff while there. I didn’t know what to expect then, either. I had heard that Jeff had started his change, but it was really the same old Jeff, of course. We had a great time talking about the old days and I loved getting him to talk about all kinds of stuff that I always wanted to know the answers to: mostly artistic stuff.

Well, Maria wanted me to just go and knock on Jeff’s door, which I did. They would film from behind me our reunion. After my knock, a gaunt and withered Jeff opened the door. He was thin, thin, thin. His voice was somewhat fragile, but it was Jeff. We hugged and he seemed genuinely happy to see me.

We entered his small room, big enough for a single bed, a small night table, a small desk where he has his iMac computer, and a chest of drawers atop which he had a knight’s helm, a vase of flowers and a straw sun hat (I thought this was sort of a nice tableaux about Jeff). He also had his own small bath, I think, in the room as well.

After the warm greeting he turned and went to sit back down on his unmade bed. He looked so old to me. It was difficult to look at him, my memories of him being so much more vital than this. He’s only 65 years old, I later learned, but looks much, much older. He said he was feeling sort of ill. We asked if he wanted something to calm his stomach, maybe a soda? He thought that might be nice, so Maria took off to get him a ginger ale. There was a little heater grinding away on the floor. On the wall at the foot of his bed was a large oil of Tarzan and a lion.

It’s a wonderful beginning with shades of NC Wyeth, yet unmistakably Jeff. He hasn’t touched it in over four or five years. His French landscape easel sits at the foot of his bed, legs down like it’s ready to do some work. The small room is disconcerting. It seems too, too small for someone like Jeff whose talent is so profound.

We finally get Jeff together and head out. He directs us to Magic Meadow (I don’t think I ever knew the name of this place) and once we wend our way up the mountain and I see the flat expanse I know immediately where we are.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been here and I don’t know when Jeff’s last trip was here. We pile out of the car and slowly make our way down a small ravine, onto a path of rocks straddling a stream, and then walk upward toward the meadow. Jeff is struggling a bit as it’s hard for him to breathe. But we get up there and I remember coming out to paint in this place with the gang. I still have the paintings somewhere, though they might be on my sister or mother’s walls in Texas. It’s chilly now and Jeff is in a jacket. I snap pictures like crazy all about.

We stand in the meadow which is working it’s Autumn pallet of beautiful death. The sky is overcast but one can see the sun glowing silver behind the haze. It’s quiet and peaceful and Jeff and I talk about coming up here to paint. I can remember standing in this meadow as a twenty year old and struggling to make sense of the myriad bushes and leaves and trees, and I remember too how every painting I did brought me closer to some kind of understanding of landscape painting. I remember being giddy to be with my hero watching him do his magic, and doing the one thing I desperately wanted and enjoyed doing — painting. Seeing Jeff work on his pieces, and other’s theirs, I would alter my course and simplify and hopefully leave with something that was halfway decent. But it was less about the finishes as much as about the journey itself.

I prod him to tell me what he looks for when he’s landscape painting and all that. He points to a tree off aways and tells us that he and Maryellen brought this tree back with them in a suitcase from somewhere and planted it. It’s a big tree now, robust in its new home. Jeff says he stooped to pat the dirt down and on his knee asked Maryellen to marry him. It’s obviously a good memory for him. He’s proud of his tree.

We talk about trying to capture the light, how to edit what we’re seeing. I asked him what was more important, color or value. He thought for a moment and laughed, “You know the answer to that, George. It’s all important.”

Jeff did some of my favorite landscape paintings ever. They feel timeless to me. His cloud paintings in particular are wonderful. They’re paintings, really, of nothing. Pure abstracts that we attribute form to. And I liked that he was looking up, toward the light, toward the sky. I’ll be painting clouds until the day I die, thanks to Jeff pointing the way.

Jeff then says we should go see the Robin Hood tree, and asks if I remember that. I don’t. He points along the path toward deeper woods and says to stay on the path and I should be able to see it with no problem. He was going to head back to the car as he was too tired to make it to the tree.

Why I loved hearing about the Robin Hood tree is that it draws a very direct line of connection between Jeff and his heroes — Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth, Frank (whom Jeff got to meet at Schoonover’s studio) and Harvey Dunn. I love that the work of these individuals is so deeply rooted in our consciousness as artists that we see their work in the natural world around us and attribute it to their wondrous visions and paintings. Jeff was talking about a tree that clicked in his mind and reminded him of the trees in those paintings. Those paintings taught him to see. And how wonderful that he still acknowledges that.

I followed the path, which petered out and so I made my way through dead leaves and brush. The forest was incredible and one could easily imagine a satyr striding through those dead leaves and trees. I did go down to the Robin Hood tree, or what I thought would be that tree. But I didn’t find one tree that hit me as “the” tree. There were a couple I shot and they were magnificent in and of themselves. And there was one that once was amazing, but it was split in two by lightning it looked like. One half of it lay on the ground and the other seemed carved out and hollowed by time. I took pictures of it too, and it is this tree that Jeff felt was the Robin Hood tree. He’s bummed that it’s not still in all its glory.

He points to a felled tree trunk by the car. It’s covered in green moss and has withered branches that stick out like spokes on a wheel. “That’s the Hal Foster tree. He put one of those in almost every Prince Valiant strip! Man, I copied that over and over! Frazetta got that from him too.”

We leave the meadow and head into town to get lunch. We go to a sort of diner-like place and sit down. I ask Jeff if he’s done.
“What do you mean?” He says.
“With drawing and painting. Are you done? I mean, is this it?” He’s not painted in four years or so.
“Oh, no. No. I just don’t feel like doing it right now. But painting is my first love. Of course I’ll come back to it. Right now, though, I just don’t need it.”
I nod. I do understand. I’ve been there too. I filled that place with something else at the time, but did and always do find my way back. “That’s great, then. It’ll be great to see what you do. I can’t wait!”

I pull out the iPad and show him how the thing works. Years ago when I was designing and putting together his sketchbook for Vanguard I was constantly expounding on the wonders of the Macintosh and Jeff would laugh. It was just a computer. But he finally got a Mac and loved it. He had a lot of fun playing with the pad and I got him to do a drawing on it.

What nailed him, though, was the iPhone. He loved the pictures it was taking and could see himself totally getting caught up in using it to capture the world around him and then paint from them. It was nice to see him excited about something.

We finish up lunch and decide to find a spot to do some filming, preferably outside, though the sky is darkening and it looks as though it’s going to rain. We do find a restaurant that lets us set up under a small tent. There’s no one else outside and it’s already sprinkling. While Maria and Mark Garrett get the shoot set up Jeff and I sit in the car. He turns to me and smiles.
“How does it feel to have your friend become a lesbian?”
“I get it, Jeff. If I was a woman I’d be a lesbian too.” We both laugh pretty hard. It’s great to see him laugh.
“Jeff, all I care about is that you’re happy and keep on painting. You need to do what makes you happy.”
He nods, then says, “Someone told me that I don’t know how to take a compliment. And I guess I don’t.”
“Well,” I said. “Here’s another compliment that you can’t take. You changed my life, Jeff. You taught me how to see. You made me the artist that I am. I can never repay you for that.”
And for once he turned to me and said, “Thank you.”

Maria dodges the rain and tells us the shot is ready. We hustle to the tent where they’ve got Jeff and I sitting side by side with a microphone hanging between us. We have a copy of the Studio book and I talk with Jeff about the history of The Studio and the book, and what that book meant to so many artists. We talked about influences and how we build on those foundations and hopefully move on to greater things.

And though I’ve been able to verbalize and remember so much about that trip, I can’t remember everything we talked about in that last scene. Strange. But when the camera was off we talked about some personal stuff and how one should never say never. That some things take time to work themselves out and that one should always leave the paths of communication open.

The rain was really coming down now and the light was gone. Time to get Jeff back to his room. There are some laughs in the car and I show Jeff pictures of my children. He remembers when Georgie was born as he and Maryellen sent us a copy of Pinocchio, which is one of my own personal favorite cartoons.

We get Jeff settled in and have to race to get Mark to JFK airport so he can get back to Ireland. We fly down the NY Throughway and just make it. Maria and I take our time and go to SOHO and get Chinese food and talk about Jeff and the shoot, then back to her place. I enjoy meeting her husband, a very cool guy. I leave in the morning.

On arriving in Tampa I feel totally out of sorts. My mind is totally filled with this time with Jeff. It has shocked me to see him this way. And on the drive home it hits me and I just fall apart. I seem to know I’ll never see him again.

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We did speak a couple of times after the shoot. Jeff asked me to write the introduction to the Idyl / I’m Age collection and he got to read it too.

Then silence.

I remember…

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Below are photos I shot of Jeff’s studio from the 1990’s at Bear Mountain. It too was a magical place and filled with Jeff’s wonderful art.

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