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Protests in acrylic
Following the money led South Carolina artist John W. Jones, a
descendant of slaves, to see art where he least expected it — the currency of
the Old South.
He has spent the past decade dramatizing a long-forgotten fact: Slaves
picking, baling and transporting cotton were depicted routinely on Confederate
By transferring these monetary vignettes onto canvas, Mr. Jones aims to show
how human bondage fueled the economy of the Confederacy and to discredit the
idea that the Civil War was fought over states' rights alone.
Fascinating more for their didacticism than their artistry, his
acrylic paintings have traveled to museums and colleges around the country since
2001. Fifty of them are being displayed in a venue that seems tailor-made for
the exhibit — the former Bank of Petersburg, Va., which issued a few of the
Confederate bills in the show.
The antebellum Greek Revival building has become home to the Siege Museum,
which documents the 10-month assault on Petersburg by the Union Army during the
Civil War. Nearly every nook and cranny of the museum, including the balcony
around its domed rotunda, has been filled with the slave paintings and the money
that inspired them.
The "Color of Money" series was begun in 1996, when Mr. Jones was working
for a blueprint company in Charleston, S.C., and was asked to enlarge a $10
Confederate bill for a customer. While scanning the 1853 note, he was struck by
the vignette in the right-hand corner. The tiny, detailed image showed slaves
"It blew me away," the 55-year-old artist said during a tour at the museum
last week before speaking at a conference on blacks and the Civil War in
Petersburg. "I'd seen Confederate money before, but I had never paid attention
to what was on it until that day. I had never seen this in history books."
Intrigued by what he saw, Mr. Jones took out his brushes and paints to
reproduce the faded, monochromatic engraving in bright colors at a larger scale.
"I wanted to re-create the scene exactly as it was shown and bring it back to
He then proceeded to research Confederate currency and buy it from Internet
sites, antiques shops and flea markets. Over the years, he amassed a collection
of about 40 notes issued by states, banks, railroads and insurers in both
Southern and Northern states.
Framed facsimiles of those bills and others are paired with his paintings to
draw attention to the romanticized images of slaves that were used as monetary
emblems along with historical scenes and pictures of national leaders.
A $10 bill issued by the Central Bank of Alabama, for example, features a
portrait of George Washington in the right corner and slaves in the cotton
fields on the left. Mr. Jones based one of his strongest paintings, "Slave
Carrying Cotton," on the note, focusing on a mannish female slave shouldering a
basket brimming with the crop.
"She was the hardest working lady on Confederate money," the artist says in
explaining that the image appeared on bills issued by at least 21 institutions
in states from Florida to Tennessee.
Images of slaves first appeared on paper money issued by a Georgia bank in
1820 but only became common after the 1850s. They outlasted the Civil War,
persisting into the late 1880s, according to Mr. Jones.
Often Northern printers reworked agricultural scenes of white laborers into
black slaves in producing currency for Southern bankers. In "Slave Picking
Corn," the artist shows how the engraving of a white farmer carrying a basket of
corn on a $3 bill from the Citizens Bank of Washington, D.C., becomes a black
slave hauling the same basket on a $50 bill issued by a Virginia bank.
Because bank notes, even locally produced ones, circulated nationally, the
scenes of contented, sometimes smiling black fieldworkers helped propagate the
message that slavery was positive and good for the nation.
The Petersburg exhibit portrays the involvement of slaves in nearly all
aspects of the economy — picking cotton in the fields, hauling bales onto trains
and steamboats, harvesting corn and sugar cane, working in a factory, cooking
for white masters.
Mr. Jones renders the scenes in a folksy style that reflects his background
as an illustrator and commercial artist. Dazzling turquoise skies, muscular
bodies and grinning faces project an image of slavery more vivid and idyllic
than shown on the money.
Though he tried to be as historically accurate as possible, Mr. Jones was
forced to use his imagination when some of the figures on the Confederate bills
remained too indistinct after being enlarged. He gave some of the slaves more
personality with faces based on friends and relatives, and sneaked in an
occasional look of disdain or defiance.
It takes the money to convey the meaning of the paintings, but most viewers
will be hard-pressed to make the connection because the slavery scenes on the
reproduced Confederate bills are so small and fuzzy. The exhibit could benefit
from some magnifying glasses or bigger blowups of the old engravings to reveal
the source material more clearly.
Even when money and art can be compared obviously, the conceit wears thin
after a while. Instead of summoning up anger and discomfort, the paintings lull
the viewer with their greeting-card-style realism. They don't critique the bank
notes' images of slavery with scenes of hardship or struggle but merely recycle
their message of profitable exploitation.
Mr. Jones admits many viewers have been confused by his bright, cheerful
depictions of slaves, mistaking them as a tacit endorsement of past racial
injustices. "A lot of people don't understand," says the artist, who supports
the idea of government reparations to blacks for slavery. "I've even had the
Sons of the Confederacy ask me to lecture."
The real goal of the exhibit, he says, is to serve as a teaching tool and
encourage a dialogue about race. "Kids need to understand all the struggles that
got them to where they are today."
That may be purpose enough.
WHAT: "Confederate Currency: The Color of Money"
WHERE: The Siege Museum, 15 W. Bank St., Petersburg, Va.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and July 8
during local arts walk. On view through July 31.
TICKETS: $5 for adults; $4 for seniors, military and children.