"I did kind of want to reiterate the fact that there was a time when there was no MTV," East Village filmmaker and photographer M. Henry Jones said before Anthology Film Archives presented M. Henry Jones: The Downtown Scene, a comprehensive screening of the artist's film work. The program encompasses three decades of film and video, from a 1974 Kodak Teenage Movie Award-winning short to current works in progress. The Fleshtones' Soul City, (begun in 1977 and completed in 1979), Nervous Rex's Go Go Girl (1978-81) and the Zantees' Brand New Cadillac (photographed in 1979 but completed last year) each utilize Mr. Jones's painstaking work methods to visually counterpoint the structure of the music that is being featured.
Kofi Forson: We’ve been neighbors for quite a while now Henry. Didn’t know I had such a legend for a neighbor.
M. Henry Jones: Well I’ve been in the East Village for long enough. I wouldn’t call myself a legend though. That makes me look old.
Forson: I guess the first time I knew I had more than just the usual tenant living next door was when I saw Richard Edson from Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise enter your apartment.
Jones: Yeah Richard is an old friend. He worked on my wife Rachel Amodeo’s film What About Me.
Forson: The likes of you and Rachel in a way are part of East Village allure. What happened to the East Village? How and why has it changed from let’s say when you moved here in the late 70’s to where we are now? What’s going on here now?
Jones: I moved to New York in the East Village in 1976 after living above the Quad Cinema on 13th Street and 6th Avenue for the first year of college when I came to New York to study film in the animation department of The School of Visual Arts on a scholarship. The second year I moved to a small apartment on 9th Street which I had for many years. In 1976 I was literally afraid to go to Avenue A. I would come down the stairs of my building look to Avenue A and pretty much almost run to First Avenue. As the years went by and things settled down, New York became more affordable. People moved down here. They were of character and style. Some of them made their own clothes. Now more people are basically dressed in uniforms which are expensive boots or purses. The individual care which people took to put themselves together is gone. You see a lot of corporate types. Eclectic ones are not here as much.
Forson: Tell me about your Snake Monkey studio?
Jones: Well it originated from my apartment on 9th Street and Avenue A back in 1982-83. I’m currently between 12th and 13th on A. I had this thing about a monkey and a snake. It then became a character that I drew. The Snake Monkey. I haven’t animated or done much with it but I hope to have it in a future project. I have a sculpture I did of a snake monkey stroboscopic. There are two of them. In 1993 Robert Parker helped me build one. It was part of a major show in Dumbo, Brooklyn called The 4 by 4 Show.
Forson: I guess you’ll always be remembered for Soul City the film you did with The Fleshtones which was also stroboscopic.
Jones: Yeah it was a photo animation stroboscopic color film. I worked on it from 1977-1979. When the film was half way done I heard about a show coming up in Washington, D.C. Peter Zarember and I were working on Soul City trying to get it finished. We decided to create a best of what we had completed. It was a photographically animated film using cut outs. We took some of the shots that were done and put them with the soundtrack and added a color background. I called it Fleshtone Test Roll Number 11. I had made ten test rolls up to that day that would run the whole length of the song which was only two minutes. It had various animations with photographs and colors strobing behind them. We put together a version of the film for a show in D.C. called What is Punk Art? We wanted to be a part of it. We went down in a bus with Blondie and The Ramones. Almost everybody from the East Village was piling into the bus. We all drove down there. In the middle of the show we set up a projector. Turned the lights off and projected the film on a blank wall. Two minutes later when we turned the lights back on everyone was speechless. I finished the film in 1979. I had a showing at the Museum of Holography.
Forson: What are your memories of the days when you worked out of your apartment? What were you listening to? What were you reading? Who were some of the people who passed through? It must have been quite chaotic.
Jones: Well we drove most of my neighbors crazy ordering Chinese food in the middle of the night. I had six or seven people working on paintings for television commercials. It reached a point in my apartment when it got a bit too much. I was asked if I could take my commercial production to another place. Rachel actually found me this studio on Avenue A. I really did enjoy working out of my apartment. When I was first working on Soul City I worked on it at Chelsea Hotel in Harry Smith’s room. I was cutting up photographs there. When I graduated School of Visual Arts I started working in my apartment. What I loved about working in my apartment was I would go to sleep wake up and the work would be unmoved. It felt like a semi trans-like dream state where people would buzz and come over to visit. Snake Monkey is more centered on what happens inside the studio with respect to those working in there and also my neighbors.
Forson: The Apple Heart Daisy movie was one of the films you started in your apartment.
Jones: It’s a mega project that I worked on for twelve years from 1982-1994. It ended up to be an hour and fifty six minutes of animation created over the course of twelve years including a sound track I recorded with Buster Poindexter’s band.
Forson: Fair to say many artists and names went uncredited during this time. Who were some of the names that were important to the art movement in the East Village, Robert Parker for example? How was he an important figure?
Jones: Robert Parker came here from Canada in 1982. He remarked on the different types of forging done on buildings like the Anthology Film Archives. He noticed there had been interesting work done by the forgers.
Forson: What’s a forger?
Jones: A blacksmith. Robert Parker was a forger. He was involved with the squarters.
Forson: I remember squatters inhabited most of the abandoned buildings here in the East Village. The battles the police had with them was quite legendary. What was the Squatter Movement all about? Who were these squatters? Politically what were they saying? Did they have any rights at all?
Jones: I wasn’t tuned in to what was happening outside my studio but people would come in to work for me and they would talk about ABC No Rio. I would ask them where they were going and they would give me this mental picture of what was happening around town. I got most of this information from young people who were tuned into the scenes. Although I didn’t go to a lot of these performances I felt I had a good sense of them.
Forson: What was Robert Parker’s involvement with the Squatters?
Jones: Robert went to the squats and hung out with the kids. There were fire escapes in the back of the building. The junkies would run in through the back of the building and take everything. Robert came around and welded these gates in the back of the squats. He put a fire door there. When the Fire Department came they approved of the fire door. It inspired places like ABC No Rio to open. These were buildings in the squats that opened because of Robert Parker welding a gate there so people could feel protected and have lives while people in the squats were marauders attacking others every night.
Forson: You practice a form of photography called fly’s eye photography. What is fly’s eye photography?
Jones: Fly’s eye photography is a form of integral photograph which is auto stereoscopic. You take a picture made up of over 2000 individual little pictures. They are then put through a computer process. The pictures are inverted then placed behind a plastic screen made up of a matching number of lenses. The plastic screen make the photo appear 3-D. When you walk by the photograph the image behind the lenses interact with you. Every time you look there’s an image presented so the brain accepts it as 3-D.
Forson: You grew up in a town called Wilson, New York. Originally you were born in Texas. Was your childhood as adventurous as one would imagine. You seem possessed by ideas and somehow you attract information.
Jones: For starters I lived in a house trailer my father built a brick addition to. Then we moved to a brick house down the road. In the backyard of the house was a fish pond. The kidney shape of that fish pond appeared through my work for many years. Then my father brought me to Niagra Falls. He was doing work with chemicals that involved electricity. Niagra Falls is a great place of electricity.
Forson: When did you make the transition to art? During your formative years how were you introduced to art?
Jones: I had an art teacher who was a friend of the family’s. She allowed me to come in and make sculptures. I made a hippopotamus carved out of plaster and vermiculite. I then took an interest in film. I got a camera put film in it. I bought the camera for dollars. I shot stuff around the house.
Forson: What films were popular at this time? Were you attracted at all to Hollywood movies? Was television important in any way?
Jones: Television was important to me growing up because it had Bugs Bunny and Road Runner hour. I loved watching Under Dog and a lot of these animations. As I got older I would watch some movies. But I didn’t watch a whole lotta television. I saw a film from Yugoslavia that my teacher brought in, a film of a flying walrus. It was animation but not Bugs Bunny or Road Runner which I loved. This inspired me to make my own animated film. I took the hippopotamus sculpture I had made and attached bat wings to it. I had it flying around my room on a fishing rod. I did a film of my puppet flying around my room. I knew then I wanted to be an animator.
Forson: When did you move to Buffalo? This proved to be important in your introduction to other artists who helped shape the 80’s movement like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo.
Jones: My sister moved to Buffalo State University. I rode my bicycle on the super highways to Buffalo and stayed with her. I did everything there, went to films, art events, sat in on classes. I gravitated toward artists walking through Buffalo. We started an outfit called Hall Walls. It was a gallery space with many hallways. Cindy and Robert were in charge of running it.
Forson: So you make your way to New York in the late 70’s. What was happening?
Jones: In 1979 the East Village was a special place. There were rock and roll bands every where, B 52’s, The Fleshtones. Clubs like Max’s Kansas City. They say when people grow up and leave home some try and go as far away as they can. They go until they can’t go any further. Some people go to New York, some to L.A. New York in the 80’s rent was cheap. For 600 dollars you could move to New York, $285 dollars for rent, $50 bucks expenses for two months. The East Village was active with parties, club activity, Grade B movies screening and alternative spaces for art events. It was different from Soho. Soho was more minimalist.
Forson: Your mentor was Harry Smith. Share with me how you met him and what was it about his work that had such a great influence on you?
Jones: Suzanne Harris, an artist I really liked a lot suggested I pay attention to Harry Smith. So I went to The Anthology Film Archives and saw screenings of his early films. I remember being completely flabbergasted. They were beautiful color movies. I fell in love with the work. I eventually wrote a paper about Harry Smith for school. After I saw The Tin Woodsman’s Dream I had to meet Harry. I started bothering Jonas Mikas. After a long while Jonas gave me a number at Chelsea Hotel. I went to see Harry. He rejected me at first because he said he never welcomed students. He eventually invited me upstairs. I was in awe with him and his room. A lot of the images he worked with were circles. The work was simple but it had a presence. At one point he said he wanted to sand for one of his collages. I went out to the hallway and took one of the ashtrays and sanded it, brought it back. We had some stocking for some photography work we wanted to do. We ended up putting the ashtrays in the stocking. The next day I went to Chelsea Hotel. I noticed that every ashtray in the entire hotel was missing. I knocked on the door to his room. He was standing in a pile of sand. It was one of those things that kinda blew my mind.
Forson: I recall vividly hearing you jingling and jangling your keys. I opened my door to greet you. We had never spoken. In talking I got to know who you are, your contemporaries like Keith Haring. People you had made friendships with like Richard Hell. Fair to say you are important to this neighborhood. You are a living example of what it once was. And hopefully will always be remembered as.
Jones: I want to make art that would make the planet a better place to live in, someway opens up people’s minds and someway sends a calming signal. Purpose of art is to help the planet. That is my political stance. It was never so much what I read about in the news. I have always been interested in the time I devoted to make art that affects the world we live in.
Forson: I believe Bjork was quoted as saying the future of art will be geared towards nature.
Jones: Yes Bjork. I love Bjork!
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Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.