Denise Jones, a kaleidoscopic visionary

AHOY THERE! Artist Denise Jones at the helm of a kaleidoscope operated by the treadle repurposed from an old sewing machine. Below, hot water in a tea cup works a little Stirling engine, which turns a kaleidoscope Photos by Janine Volkmar | Union

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

EUREKA – If Leonardo da Vinci were a woman, her name would be Denise Jones.

OK, I know my feminist history – Hypatia, the Greek mathematician, astronomer and philosopher; Eliza Wilbur’s patents for telescopes and, of course, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, widely credited with being the first computer programmer. Not to mention all my favorite woman artists.

But walking into Jones’ studio (which she built herself) is just as I imagined how it would be to walk into Leonardo’s workshop in the year 1500. I’m sorry, I can’t help the masculine comparison.

Inventions, raw materials, old clocks, bicycles, parts of lamps, piles of books, all await the creative spirit that Jones obviously channels from the inventors of centuries. She is always thinking up something new. In the two hours that we talked, she probably could have created another amazing invention if I hadn’t been distracting her.

And the kaleidoscopes. Oh the kaleidoscopes.

They range from the tiny exquisite tubes made from colorful titanium to the giant kaleidoscope connected to the treadle of an old sewing machine. The viewer sits on a bench and works the treadle with her feet to make the colors and shapes form into enchanting patterns.

If you have used a kaleidoscope borrowed from a child, the kind that is a cardboard tube filled with chips of colored plastic that move as the end of the tube is turned, you’ve seen the faint echo of the wonders that these machines are.

For a kaleidoscope is just that: a machine or instrument that uses mirrors to reflect images into an everchanging array of patterns and beauty. But each one is a work of art.

One of the large kaleidoscopes that Jones made is connected to a projector so that the “passerby is turned into a kaleidoscopic vision,” according to her website,

That's just one example of the power of her imagination.

Another kaleidoscope is made from a silver-edged teacup and saucer, topped by a Stirling engine, connected to a frame made from an old silver clock and viewed through a hole drilled into a repoussé silver cup. The base is an antique silver tray. You can put ice or warm water in the teacup and the temperature change runs the engine that turns the kaleidoscope. At least, I think that's how it works.

The ideas just flow from the artist's mind onto her long, long work counter. It's hard to imagine a broader array of optical illusions, but I predict that the next visitor to her studio will see something even more amazing.

Another work in progress is one she called "The Big Bang." A metal frame that once held a world globe is slated to hold a kaleidoscope that will be pointed at an array of colored chips made from broken CDs.

Next to that is a dual kaleidoscope due to be held by a double lamp base with the lenses aimed at two metal dishes. The lucky owner will be able to fill the dishes with treasures – agates, jewelry or who knows what – and see the composite images through the kaleidoscopes differently as the dish contents are changed.

Even though Jones uses an array of recycled parts from lamps, sculptures, bikes, and more for her creations, she uses all-new pieces of mirror for the working guts of the kaleidoscope. "It's called front surface mirror," she explained, "It has no distortion."

Jones started making kaleidoscopes in the 1980s. She sold them in trade shows all over the country, she said,  but that was a "cutthroat" atmosphere. Less-than-scrupulous viewers would steal or photograph her one-of-a-kind pieces and she would see the copies produced in China at the next trade show. Now she participates in kaleidoscope conventions, for "people interested in the science of the idea."

But she's always been making and selling things. "I did my first trade show at 15," she said. It was the Los Angeles gift show and Jones sold candles and macrame. "I ended up creating macrame kits," she said.

She earned a degree in the fine art of printmaking, studying at the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

Graphic art still speaks to her, as her latest venture, the Fair Trade Crate, demonstrates. She silkscreened the cover of the box that she and a partner, Janet Aranada, fill with fair trade gifts and objects. Folks can subscribe to receive a box every month, each filled with the treasures from a different country. All the contents are produced by artisans of that country and many support charitable efforts there. One example is the finely twisted red bracelet made by the RedThreadMovement, a group that helps rescued girls in Nepal and fights against trafficking of women and girls.

"We designed the crate so that it fits exactly into a priority post office package," Jones explained. She likes thinking through all the components of any project, from the beautiful mix of gifts to the method of shipping.

Subscribers get a box of treasures a month, and for each subscription sold, a baby chick is donated to the Heifer Project. Every box also includes a letter with stamps from the particular country of the month. Visit to learn more.

It's the same attention to detail that building a large or tiny kaleidoscope takes.

Jones came to the area in 1974 and has been involved in myriad creative projects ever since. She teaches enrichment classes for kids at Freshwater School, she and her son Sean have made "thousands of hats" for the homeless, and she can be found at crafts fairs around the holidays. "The only time I do fairs is at Christmas," she explained. "I like to think of myself as Santa's little helper."

Her etched glasses and recycled books are always selling out, but she doesn't sell her kaleidoscopes at the fairs.

"I like producing quantities of things, figuring out how to make things and do a lot of them," she explained. "I've been trying to perfect the book pieces for many years."

Jones stockpiles books for their intriguing covers, colors and titles. We laugh over what she'll make out of The Mystery of the Siamese Twins, for example.

She cuts shapes out of the center of the book, effectively making an old chestnut into a secret treasure box, that can sit between other books and not reveal itself.

And she is recycling books no one else even wants. She loves the bindings of the Reader's Digest Condensed Books, old books that even used bookshops and thrift shops don't accept because they don't sell. 'They're hard to find now," she said.

The books are stacked in crevices and corners around the studio, waiting for transformation, as is an exercise bicycle that will soon be a large kaleidoscope that will perhaps inspire the collector to pedal around the world, staying in one color and light-filled place.

Jones laughs when asked what her next project will be. She was probably germinating a new creation five minutes after I left.

Leonardo, indeed.