using blue and red pencil to represent smoke and fire, drew meticulously rendered, multistory, cell-like “devil houses” inhabited by what he called “haints” (“haunts,” or ghosts) or “haint-devils”—stylized humans, animals, and birds, in rooms bordered by “devils’ horns,” though occasionally a devil hovers outside. Jones’s iconographyreflects his vision, experiences, and African American aesthetic and cultural traditions. His art spanned the last five years of his life, when he was serving a sentence atthe state penetentiary in Huntsville, Texas. Clocks appear in much of his work; they may refer to a large clock in the prison yard, to the strict schedules in the prison, or,symbolically, to the passage of life, particularly for prisoners “doing time.”Jones was born in Red River County, Texas, near Clarkville. Before he was six, both parents left him. His mother had told him that he was born with a caul andtherefore had second sight. According to Jones, this folk belief was borne out: he had his first vision at age nine and saw spirits throughout his life.Jones’s works, on typing paper salvaged from the trash in the office where he worked, were at first stiff forms with few figures but became more complex anddetailed as his confidence grew. They were often signed with his prisoner’s number, 114591, and later his name. In his mature style, the haints appear benign, but Jonessaid they smile “to get you to come closer…to drag you down and make you do bad things” (quoted in an unpublished paper by Dee Steed).In 1964, the Texas department of corrections held its first annual art show. Major David Mathison, an officer at the Huntsville unit, brought Jones’s art to theattention of education officials, who encouraged Jones to submit a drawing; it won first prize. Murray Smither of Atelier Chapman Kelley, a gallery in Dallas, wasimpressed by Jones’s talent and promoted his art.In February 1969, Jones was granted parole (after having been turned down repeatedly), but one day before his release he entered the prison hospital withadvanced liver disease. He died two weeks later. He had received some material benefits from his art—a radio, wristwatch, a Christian funeral—and had also achievedacceptance, for the first time.Jones won prizes in “Art on Paper,” a national exhibition sponsored by the Witherspoon Art Gallery of the University of North Carolina (1965); and the SeventeenthExhibition of Southwestern Prints and Drawings, organized by the Dallas Museum of Art (1968). His drawings are at the American Folk Art Museum (New York) andSmithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.).
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Prison Art
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