Frank Jones was born in Clarksville, Texas in 1900, less than 35 years after the Civil War and Emancipation. His descendants were slaves who had been re-settled in East Texas from other Southern states to provide labor for cotton farming. Life in strictly segregated Clarksville was predictably harsh and uncompromising. Frank received little in the way of formal education, he never learned to read or write. However, the racial segregation that pervaded African American life at this time also led to a preservation of African cultural traditions which would have a lasting impact on Jones' life. One of these traditions was manifested in the story of Jones' birth. According to Frank Jones, his mother told him that he had been born with a "veil" over his left eye, which would allow him to see into the spirit world. This is an African American folk belief that a "caul" ( part of the fetal membrane left over the newborn's eye at birth } will enable the child to see and communicate with spirits, often described as "second sight".
Frank Jones grew up with this belief and expectation. He described how he began to see spirits about the age of nine. He called them "haints" or devils and for the young Frank they were an ominous presence in his daily life. According to Jones he would see the devils overtly, as well as disguised as animals. They haunted him. Frank Jones grew into a troubled man. He worked odd jobs as a laborer and farm hand, but began drinking heavily. His life became more and more haphazard and irresponsible, In 1941, he was convicted of raping a young girl who he had apparently sheltered for a year after her abandonment by her mother. When the mother came to reclaim her, Frank refused. The charges were brought by the mother and Jones was convicted. He served seven years in Red River County Jail and in 1949, after his release, he married Aubrey Culberson, a widow with two grown sons. Frank continued to be troubled by the malevolent spirit world with which he shared his own existence. He drank excessively and was thought of as strange by his neighbors and family. He continued to roam the town, a man troubled by his inner and outer demons. He was at odds with his step sons much of the time. In 1949 an elderly woman was robbed and murdered. Frank was implicated by one of his step sons and found guilty. He was given a life sentence, of which he served nine years before being paroled. Some speculate that this short prison term was to make up for his being "railroaded" in the first place. However, in 1960 he was again accused and convicted of rape and was imprisoned to complete his life sentence at the Walls Unit of Huntsville State Prison.
By all accounts, Frank Jones was a prisoner who did not challenge authority or cause trouble for guards or other inmates. He was described as a quiet, submissive man who was viewed as being a bit odd, maybe retarded. Some time in the early 1960's Frank began to draw. Using some worn down stubs of red and blue pencils discarded by the prison accountants and some scavenged paper, he began to draw what he called "devil houses'. In the beginning, the drawings were small in scale and depicted modest structures constructed of rooms or compartments with jagged edged walls. Frank would later described these pointed borders as "devil horns" and the blue and red colors as representing fire and smoke. Soon the drawings began to include the devils or 'haints" that had been Frank's companions throughout his life. At first, the devils lurked outside of the houses, awaiting their entry that would evolve in Jones' later work.
This featured drawing is an early work of Frank Jones, created before 1964. It depicts a house of six rooms bordered with the devil horns. An additional border of fire and smoke is at the right. Most significantly, a single "haint" is positioned at the lower left corner of the house, awaiting entrance. The devil is smiling and is a seemingly benign creature. According to Jones the smile belies its true intentions..." to get you to come closer, to drag you down and make you do bad things. They are happy waiting for your soul, they laugh when they do that". Frank Jones would become devoted to drawing and representing his life and the world as he had known it. His drawings became increasingly elaborate and detailed. The devils increased in number and variety and came to inhabit the larger dwellings. For Jones this served a protective and totemic function. He said that the devils were controlled, their power diminished by being in the houses.
Frank Jones would use his drawings to barter in the prison economy. He would give them as gifts. Then in 1964, The Texas Department of Corrections held its first art show at Huntsville, highlighting prisoner's arts and crafts. The story goes, that as a joke one of the guards entered a Jones drawing in the juried competition and it won. In attendance at the show was Murray Smither, of Atelier Chapman Kelley Gallery in Dallas. In a classic version of the "discovery story" Smither was captured by Jones's art and his first laison with the art world was established. Frank was provided with new materials and an audience for his work.
Jones continued to create and elaborate on his themes of evil, temptation and protection in the spirit and corporeal worlds for the next five years until his death in 1969. His drawings can be seen as his attempt to reconcile his divergent life experiences. His "devil houses" are at once a concrete depiction of his own life in "the big house" complete with cells and dangerous occupants. This is cast against his experiences beginning in early childhood as a participant in a darker spiritual world.
About The Exhibition
A Bi-Chromatic World
Exhibition Dates: May 5 – July 2, 2017
The self-taught, African-American artist Frank Jones (1900-1969) was born in Clarksville, in Red River County, in the northernmost corner of east Texas, near the border with Oklahoma. There, his slave ancestors had labored on cotton plantations, and enforced racial segregation persisted in the decades following the passing of the slavery abolishing Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. Jones, who never learned to read or write, grew up in an environment in which generations-old African traditions helped shape his aesthetic-spiritual sensibility and worldview.
Jones was born with a caul, or part of the fetal membrane, covering his left eye. That condition, his mother later told him, had allowed him to see spirits. In the African American society in which he grew up (as well as in various ancient cultures), a membrane covering a newborn’s eye was commonly known as a “veil,” and those who had been born with one were referred to as “double-sighted” and were believed to be able to communicate with the spirit world. Throughout his life, Jones claimed that he could see supernatural beings — animated objects, animals, male or female demons — which he called “haints” (haunts”), “devils” or “haint devils.”
Jones, who worked as a farm laborer and did odd jobs to eke out a living, spent some twenty years, off and on, in Texas jails; he died in the large state prison in Huntsville, north of Houston, where he had been sent to serve a life sentence for a murder he insisted he had not committed. Around the mid-1960s, as a prison inmate, he began making drawings on found scraps of paper with the stubs of blue-and-red accountants’ pencils. In his pictures he developed what became his signature “devils’ houses” motif, wiry-looking structures depicted in cross-section, in which his omnipresent, horned “haints” resided.
For Jones, his depictions of the demons he claimed to be able to see, and that, he explained, were ever ready to tempt the vulnerable and cause mischief, allowed him to give visible form to his spirit sightings and to contain what he perceived as their malevolent powers. The grinning faces of his often winged devils belie the harm he believed they were capable of causing and eager to provoke. With their allusions to the marking of time and sense of mortality that, inevitably, are on many a prisoner’s mind, clocks often appear in Jones’s drawings, too.
The artist often signed his works with his prisoner-identification number, 114591. Later, after learning how to write his name, he sometimes signed his drawings with it, although he often misspelled it. At some point during his imprisonment, Jones had access to a variety of pencil colors but ultimately he preferred working solely in blue and red, which, he said, symbolized smoke and fire. Jones produced his body of artwork over a period of five years before his death. Today, for the distinctiveness of his graphic style, the expressiveness of his line and limited palette, and the power of his images’ deeply personal and resonant, mythical themes, Jones’s oeuvre has earned a central place in the canon of the most innovative talents in the related fields of art brut, outsider art and self-taught art. His work is also deeply appreciated as a testament to the richness of the sources of the creations of many legendary African-American artists and to the enduring value of their contributions to the cultural and intellectual history of the United States. ~ Edward M. Gómez
Edward M. Gómez is a New York-based art critic, art historian, graphic designer and author. He is the senior editor of the outsider art magazine Raw Vision and New York correspondent of Art & Antiques. The author or co-author of numerous exhibition catalogs and other books, he has written for many magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Art + Auction, ARTnews, Art in America, Metropolis, Hyperallergic, the Brooklyn Rail, the Japan Times (Japan) and Reforma (Mexico).