SAINT JOHN – Many Saint John locals know Sarah Jones as a successful gallery owner and artist, known especially for her portrayals of the gritty, industrial beauty of Saint John.
But what many don’t know is before she decided to be a professional artist, she wanted to be a professor. While she was getting her masters in art history at Queen’s University, she had her sights on a long career in academia.
“I really liked school and academia and I was planning just to keep going, but in grad school, I became very aware of how that actually works and what kind of career path looks like,” says Jones. “I really liked entrepreneurship . . . and I really missed New Brunswick, so I came back.”
Next year will mark 10 years since she came back to Saint John and made her art practice into a full-time business – and she’s celebrating the anniversary with her biggest project to date.
When she first returned home in 2010, she rented her first studio on German street, beside Backstreet Records.
“I did know from school that there was a bit of a barrier sometimes between the public and art and I never liked that,” says Jones. “I thought if I could open it up a bit, maybe people would respond to that and they did. It worked out really well.”
Her small business neighbours also helped show her the ropes.
“It was a really good spot for me because I just all of a sudden has this little community of entrepreneurship mentors,” she says. “I was next to Gordie (Tufts) at Backstreet Records, and Anne McShane (at the Feel Good Store) was really helpful. I was just plugged into this wonderful group of businesspeople right at the beginning. I was like, ‘oh, this how it works.’
At this time, she also got a job working part-time at Enterprise Saint John, the city’s economic development agency now known as EDGSJ. There, she helped coordinate a program from emerging entrepreneurs. She didn’t know much about starting a business at all, but she used that as a strength to help guide what kinds of speakers to bring in and what kinds of training participants needed.
“They took this amazing leap of faith with me because I didn’t even know what marketing was … I remember telling them all that when I went into the interview. But I said, ‘I’m going through all of this myself,’ ” says Jones. “Things like having to register for a business number, and trying to figure out what HST is, and learn how to communicate with an audience. I’m having to figure it out for myself, I should be able to help other people go through the same thing.'”
Today, Jones views her time working with EDGSJ like a little business school.
“They taught me a whole bunch of stuff there because their economic development officers were really helpful and they trained me essentially,” she says.
Soon, things started getting busier with her art practice. In 2012 she decided to pursue her practice full-time, with the purchase of a tiny building on Duke Street in uptown Saint John that would serve as her gallery for the next six years.
“The open studio model probably worked for the five or six years, but then it just got too busy and I had too many deadlines,” says Jones. “That was kind of hard. I’m not really great at retail.”
She decided to bring on her brother, Caleb, to help more with the retail side of the business. From there they moved from the tiny Duke Street gallery to a giant, bright, new gallery in One Charlotte Street. Today, Jones Gallery represents and showcases a wide variety of artists in the Atlantic Region.
“All the experiences I found help feed into making things work for me, which has been very good,” says Jones.
Jones says the key to making a living out of your art is self-discipline and time management. Treat your art practice like it’s any other job.
“All entrepreneurs have to do this. You have to have really good self-discipline and pretend that there’s a boss expecting you to perform in a certain way,” she says. “Sometimes artists are hesitant to treat it like that, but we’re not going to get enough stuff done unless we adopt some entrepreneurial work ethic. You just buckle down and work.”
October 2020 will be 10 years in business for Jones. A lot has changed since then, but her love of Saint John has not. To celebrate the milestone, Jones will create one hundred 12-inch by 12-inch paintings. Each work will follow along a pre-determined route, one after the other, winding around the city’s harbour, the South End neighbourhood, and Courtenay Bay. The entire project will be exhibited at Jones Gallery next October. This will be Jones’ largest and most methodical project yet
“It’s nothing complicated, but I really want to show people exactly what it is that I really like and that I find really compelling about Saint John,” says Jones.
Jones’ practice has come a long way from that first little gallery/studio on Germain Street. Almost 10 years later, she’s at a place where she’s helping other artists in the region do what she’s done.
“I really like working with other artists. I had my own practice, and now we have this gallery where we’re hopefully impacting other professional artists and hoping to build their careers,” she says. “It feels like you’re trying to build something and then it actually comes to fruition. That’s a neat thing. You’re building something out of nothing at the beginning.”