Injecting the practice of slavery with the colors of life
is one way of looking at the art of John W. Jones.
Jones has taken vignettes of slavery, found on paper
money issued by the Confederate States of America and many
Southern states, and translated them into color-filled
images on canvas. Jones is an artist and illustrator in
Columbia, S.C. An exhibit of 30 of his paintings dealing
with slavery as a part of the African-American experience
are on display at the Avery Research Center for African
American History and Culture in Charleston, S.C., through
Jones said the reaction since the exhibit opened Feb. 15
has been more than he imagined it would ever be. He's gotten
calls from the New York Times, Home Box Office
network and People magazine about his work. His
acrylic paintings have generated a deep response among the
viewers, which surprises him, he said.
"I never dreamed that it would have this type of
reaction," Jones said. He added, "It's important
to understand why the Confederacy put cotton and slavery on
Jones was born in South Carolina in 1950 and lived
through many of the events he paints but he never
encountered this aspect of American life until about four
years ago. Jones was working for a blueprint shop in
Charleston when a collector asked to have a Confederate bank
note enlarged on one of the firm's copiers. Once the note
was enlarged, Jones said he was fascinated to see the scene
before him - a black field hand picking cotton.
That stirred his creative side and he began to do more
research into an area he never knew existed. Jones said he
looked on the Internet for more information about
Confederate notes and saw the Louisiana State University's
online exhibit, "Beyond Face Value: Depictions of
Slavery in Confederate Currency," featuring currency
depicting the lives of slaves and ex-slaves before, during
and after the Civil War. The online exhibit is found at http://www.cwc.lsu.edu/cwc/BeyondFaceValue/beyondfacevalue.htm.
Jones started looking for the notes in flea markets and
anywhere else he could find them. He said he thought
paintings based on the notes would be a good addition to his
ongoing series on the African-American experience from the
slave trades through the Civil War and onward to the present
He said he can remember drawing when he was 6 years old
and becoming more involved with his art while in high
school, where his talent was called on to design bulletin
boards and paint the backdrops for school theatrical
After high school, he spent 8 years in the U.S. Army
including service in Vietnam and Korea. For five of those
years he served as an illustrator for Army training
materials. In 1976, as part of the U.S. Bicentennial
celebration, Jones was selected to paint a wall of the
American compound in Seoul, South Korea, measuring 25 feet
tall and 150 feet long and giving visitors a black-and-white
walk through American history.
"I almost didn't finish in time for the Bicentennial
- it was a big wall," Jones said, wondering aloud if
the artwork is still to be found there.
Following his Army service Jones worked for a graphics
firm in Washington, D.C., for about a year and then started
working as a freelance artist/illustrator for clients such
as IBM, Westinghouse, NASA, Time-Life Books and the U.S.
After several years, he moved back to South Carolina.
About five years ago, he started painting full time and
selling his art to the public through several galleries. He
said he "paints ... things from my past, old hometown
scenes, churches, Buffalo Soldiers and the 54th
Massachusetts Regiment." The Buffalo Soldiers were
black troops stationed in the West after the Civil War
during the Indian Wars period, while the 54th Massachusetts
was one of the first black regiments to experience battle
during the Civil War. The Massachusetts regiment was the
subject of the movie "Glory" and is depicted in a
famous sculpture by coin designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Jones said when he approached Dr. W. Marvin Delaney,
director of the Avery Center, about an exhibit of paintings
about slavery on paper money, he said his main challenge was
"how was I going to make picking cotton exciting."
However, the topic has excited visitors to the exhibit,
which shows some a side of history they'd never seen before.
Jones uses the words "astonished" and
"amazed" to describe the comments made by viewers.
The Avery Research Center for African American History
and Culture is located at 125 Bull St., College of
Charleston, Charleston, S.C. The gallery is open between
noon and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Group tours must be
scheduled by calling (843) 953-7609.
There is no admission charge to view the exhibit.
For more information about Jones' paintings, prints and
note cards, contact Gallery Chuma, 43 John St., Charleston,
SC 29403 or call the gallery toll free at (888) 249-5286.