Jono Tosch

Where are you from and where do you reside?
I’m from a suburb of Chicago, but I live in Northampton, Massachusetts.
How long have you been in Northampton? What do you like about the area?
I moved here, to the Pioneer Valley (specifically to Northampton), in 2007 to start grad school at UMass, Amherst. The part of the valley that I live in is home to five excellent colleges, so the perks of being around so much education combine with the landscape and the area’s history. The area is both rural and urban. There are beautiful farmlands along the river, orchards and dairies in the hills, hiking trails, and old stone walls in the woods, tiny cemeteries in the woods, sadly derelict mill towns and factory towns, and old homes everywhere. I grew up in what I considered a sterile and vacuous place where it was common to tear down smaller homes to build McMansions, a place where the farmlands were rapidly turned into office parks, condos, townhouses, and strip malls, a place whose economy was directed by corporate money. The mentality here is much more focused on preservation and frugality. The paint jobs on houses here tend to be colorful instead of beige. Few people have “nice lawns,” but many people have nice gardens. I don’t even have a front lawn. It’s all garden, and the people here tend to like that, even when the garden gets overgrown. Plus, I’m only two and a half hours from New York and 90 minutes from Providence.
Do you find that your location strongly influences the direction of your work?
I don’t think my town or my region has much to do with my work. I live on the ground floor of a two-family home, and my studio is in the attic of the building — the whole attic — and so that environment definitely relates to my work. It’s a completely private place. I can look out the attic window at the snow for hours. It’s so peaceful. My work is definitely stronger because of that space.
What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?
Making tough choices. Sometimes following an impulse I think is “wrong” is exciting and hard. Sometimes I am just stuck at a decision, and I force myself to make a decision so I don’t remain stuck.
Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?
There’s always some chance, even when I work methodically as I do when I work with the X-Acto knife and straight edges. I could spend a ton of time thumbing through my magazines, looking for the “perfect” pieces of paper to cut out, but I don’t do that. Old magazines are not like paint. I’m lucky when I find good source materials at garage sales.
How do you choose your materials?
For my collage work, I use a lot of found materials. I don’t mean litter on the ground. I mean I use magazines that I happen across. For instance, a friend gave me several volumes of 19th century Harper’s magazines. I didn’t choose them, but I chose to use them.
What determines good source material? Are there any special printing techniques (duotone mezzotint, etc) that are better for collage than others?
This is a complicated question for me. Good source material should be intact, and there should be a lot of it, whatever it is. Like, I don’t get all excited when I see one stray magazine somewhere. I used to forage for magazines at the recycling dump, but now I look for materials at tag sales. If someone is selling ten volumes of vintage magazines, I’ll pick them up if the price is right. An architectural firm was cleaning out their library of contemporary, glossy architecture magazines, and I took a lot of them, but I haven’t used them because I don’t really like contemporary printing, the high-gloss finish, or the flimsy papers. More than anything, I’m drawn to the garish, hyper-realistic colors that were common from the ’50s through the ’70s. Those older papers are heavy and they handle better than newer magazine papers. I have a bunch of cooking and food magazines, but I don’t like using them. I would never want to cut out a ham and put it on top of a house.
How important is spontaneity in your art?
Spontaneity is something that I turn to when I get tired of working methodically. I go back and forth between smaller, more carefully made pieces and larger more playful (for me) pieces. I definitely have more fun working spontaneously.
I don’t really like contemporary printing, the high-gloss finish, or the flimsy papers. More than anything, I’m drawn to the garish, hyper-realistic colors that were common from the '50s through the '70s. Those older papers are heavy and they handle better than newer magazine papers. — Jono Tosch
How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I work a lot more carefully and slowly now. And with a lot more thought. I work in construction and trade work during the warm months, so I spend those months thinking about what I would like to make in the off-season. I think about what I’ve done, what I don’t want to do any more, what I’ve seen done too many times, and what I haven’t seen done much or at all. I think my work will involve more ingenuity, more craftsmanship, and be more ambitious in the future. I want to make a large collage in the same manner (i.e. slowly, carefully, and methodically) that I currently make small ones. Like something I spend four months working on.
Did you go to art school? Did you have a mentor?
I’m definitely not formally trained, but I do have an MFA in poetry, which is a kind of art school.
Do you see a connection between your interests in poetry and your interests visually?
I used to be in constant crisis over the variousness of my artistic output and interest. I didn’t see how it all fit together, and I wanted it to fit together in a coherent, brandable way. I wanted it all to make sense together, probably for my own peace of mind more than anything else. Audiences also want there to be a connection because they also want to make sense of the person. But there doesn’t really need to be a connection between the work we do in one medium and the work we do in another.

I actually like working in different mediums (art, writing, carpentry) because of the ways they don’t connect. There are skills and techniques and ways of thinking that we use in one medium that don’t transfer to another medium. I like occupying those separate spaces. I suppose collage, wood carving, and cooking do overlap to some extent, since so much of the practice centers around knowing what you want and then executing the idea with a knife (paper and wood, alas, do both come from trees), but the connection between poetry and art forms that involve manual skill is much foggier for me. When I first arrived at grad school, a classmate told me that they wanted to write poetry that was informed by landscaping, and I was like, “Maybe you should just do some landscaping.”

Anyway, I don’t really worry about the connections anymore. The connection is that I do them all to keep myself interested in life.

Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist? Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
Yeah, I’m definitely influenced by authors and other artists who don’t make visual art, but I wouldn’t say that it would be easy to trace those influences and find them in a work I make. I’m really influenced by my friend, Stanley Crawford, a novelist, but I’m influenced by how well he thinks through a problem, his dry humor, and by how he has lived his life as a farmer and a writer.
Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now?
My process is pretty solitary, especially in the past few years. I used to collaborate with a painter friend, Danny Powell. And I’ve collaborated on small things for fun, like at parties, but I tend to prefer working alone.
What do you mean at parties? Art parties?
I guess you could call them art parties, since most of the people at the parties I’m thinking about were artists of one kind or another, but mainly I just mean trading doodles back and forth with friends or playing party games like Exquisite Corpse and stuff like that. You know, people huddled around a dining room table with art supplies and beer and wine on it.
Is there any artwork on display in your home/studio? Whose is it?
Sadly, most of the work is mine, but I do proudly have an awesome Microsoft paint print made by Rachel Glaser, who is easily the most talented artist I know personally. The painting is of melty slices of pizza, a cupcake, a pink eraser that says “gloom doom,” and a syringe with blood dripping from it. It’s a really rare painting from her. I think I traded her a collage for it.
Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
Yes, it’s called Hurrah, die Butter ist Alle!, or “Hurray, the butter is gone!”. John Heartfield made it in response to Nazism. It shows a family sitting around the dinner table eating pieces of metal, like bicycle rims and lug nuts. I think a boy is putting a bicycle chain down this throat like a noodle.
Have you always worked with collage?
Pretty much. I do paint and draw, and I love painting more than anything, but collage has been the mainstay since I started making art in 1998. I must like cutting up magazines.
What are some themes you find recurring in your pieces, intentional or not?
Hot pink. I find myself wanting to use hot pink as much as I can. I guess that’s not really a theme or a motif. Pyramids have been showing up in my work for about three years. I pretty much always love rendering 3D-looking shapes. So I guess geometry (minus the circles) is a big theme for me.
How do the different elements of color come together in your works?
Sometimes I like to go for the loudest colors. I really admire the still life painter Morandi. I love the subtle tones, the mute colors, and sometimes I do work with subtlety, color-wise, but I think most often I like loud colors. With loud colors, I can hide some subtle, nuanced decisions, obscure the subtlety behind the loudness. I like the layers.
Morandi’s also great because his whole life he worked within such a narrow theme — does that appeal to you as well?
Yes, totally. It’s like a dream, focusing on and refining one idea, changing it slowly over time. Really getting somewhere with it. Morandi painted so many bottles, and so, clearly, the form of the bottle was inexhaustibly interesting to him. Maybe the bottle as subject becomes secondary to the act of bringing the bottle into being. My poetry is probably the most food-word heavy poetry among poets I know. At one point I tried to make a rule for myself — NO MORE FOOD WORDS — but it didn’t work. Writing “ham sandwich” makes me too happy.
Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
That’s a good question. I’m a serious gardener and cook, and I think food inspires me a lot. Plants inspire me. I don’t draw plants or paint plants or try to make collage plants (though I have), but plants are definitely what inspire me.
It’s interesting to hear food inspires you — do you have a favorite dish? Or a particularly inspirational one?
Soup. Soup is not a favorite dish per se. It’s a category. Bean soup is closer. I just love hovering over a pot of soup in the winter. I love cutting the vegetables. I love holding the knife. I love making the stock, deglazing the pan, watching the carrots caramelize, smashing the garlic with the side of my knife, the moment when the dry herbs hit the hot broth and become aromatic, all that. I also really like the waiting time between when the work on the soup is done and when the soup is ready. The simmering. I like to go outside into the cold, drink half a beer, smoke, go back inside into the warm, steamy soup kitchen. I like to hold my face over the pot and take the deepest breaths I can. I just makes me feel so alive and complete, even safe. Soup has got it all. Smell, warmth, technique, tool skill, flavor, sustenance, comfort, waiting, anticipation, and if you make a big enough pot, great leftovers. Soup is great alone and with friends. I love it when friends come over for soup and we all ladle the same thing into our separate bowls. Soup feels unifying in a way that few other foods do.
Do you see your works as unique or as part of a series?
The ones that are part of a series are part of a series, so I see them that way. The individual pieces I make are more unique. They’re also usually bigger. Still, I rarely make a work that doesn’t look back on at least one other work I’ve made. I’m always thinking about what I’ve done before.
What tangible objects or intangible moments are you most interested in representing through your works?
I don’t know. I try to make decisions that excite me. If I have three pieces of paper to choose from and several pieces already glued down, I try to choose the piece of paper that is the edgiest piece but not so edgy that it will ruin the party.
What’s one of your favorite objects you own? What’s the story?
Besides my house plants, all of my favorite objects came from my grandmother’s house in Millers Falls, Massachusetts. The list is long. I’ll say that the werewolf is my favorite object. It has red eyes that glow. One of its ears is broken. There’s a hole in its head for matches. It used to sit over the wood stove at my grandmother’s house. I think it scared me a bit. I took it after she died. I keep dried flowers in its head now and a rolled up dollar bill between its teeth.
What’s next for you?
I’m browsing for land with woods and cleared land where I can build a home for myself.
Is there something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I carve spoons.


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