Depicting the Harshest Realities in the Most Beautiful Ways: The Art of Frederick D. Jones
By Shantay Robinson
Frederick D. Jones was an accomplished artist in many ways, but like many of the African American artists of his generation, he was not as revered in the mainstream artworld as he was in black art circles. There isn’t much written about him, but the International Review of African American Art, The Smithsonian, and The Chicago Tribune have gathered information about his life. Born in 1913 in Georgetown, South Carolina, he became enamored with art from watching visiting artists paint scenes of the environment where he grew up. When his family moved to Atlanta in the 1920s, he met and was encouraged by Hale Woodruff who at the time was teaching art at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. After high school, he enrolled at Clark College, but the school didn’t have an art program. He later attended Britt School of Art in Atlanta while he worked at the Coca Cola plant. Harrison Jones, chairman of Coca Cola’s board at the time, saw some of Jones’ work and agreed to sponsor his education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Jones thrived in Chicago. Some of his contemporaries that found their way at the South Side Community Art Center were Gordon Parks, Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, Charles Seebree, and Margaret Goss Burroughs. Jones even served as Assistant Director of the South Side Community Art Center for a year before going back to work at Coca Cola where he retired from after 35 years to pursue art full time. Jones entered many art competitions and earned great recognition. By the 1940s, art fairs that were difficult for black artist to find space in, were seeking Jones’ work.
The romantic style that Jones paints in tells stories of African American struggle in an ingenious way. He chose to tell the harsh reality of African American life with beautiful technique and symbolic gestures. Some of his more recognized works are The Daughter of Eve, Madonna Moderne, Concerto and Our Lady of Peace. All four of the aforementioned works won prizes in the Atlanta University annuals.
In an effort to contextualize Jones’ work, I will look closely at three works in particular. They are Untitled (Woman with a Fish) ca. 1945-1950, Mother and Child ca. 1940-1945, and Madonna Moderne n.d. All three of these works depict women dealing with the harsh reality of black life. Jones’ available oeuvre depicts many images of women. And he is one of the few African American artists to paint black female nudes. The works I have chosen to look at each offer conflicting messages of hope, despair, resilience, and strife almost as a rhythmic exercise. With one gesture, the artist is symbolically interpreting black life as hopeless. With another gesture, he offers a symbol of hope. Among the destitute landscapes in these three paintings, there are allusions to Christianity, incorporating tropes from traditional religious paintings. There are also nods to surrealism with the dreamlike states of the subjects and nightmarish depictions of the spaces they inhabit.
Untitled (Woman with Fish), a painting of a sole woman in the midst of barren environment, speaks to the fruitfulness of black women despite the unforgiving realities of African American life. The artist used many symbolic elements to suggest his meaning. The dark night is behind her. The clouds threaten rain. And the wind blows the red flag roughly. But the solemn woman knowing the world behind her, holds a bountiful plate of fish in a caress before her. According to the Dictionary of Symbolism, the fish are symbolic “of the faithful submerged in the waters of life.” When we think of the symbol this way, we can see that although she may be submerged beneath the waters of life, she, although somber in the painting, has faith. The barrenness of her environment somehow produced the fish she is able to have on her plate. Here, we might look at the stained glass behind her as an allusion to the church. Many black women are known to be very involved in the church, and although throughout time in this country, times might have been hard, black women are known to turn to their faith for guidance. And this woman seems to be anointed, as there is a veil flying in the wind atop her head. The movement of the veil might represent her tenuous relationship with faith. But the net attached to what might be shelter symbolizes the ever-present abundance she can expect, as it alludes to her ability to catch more fish with it. While there is darkness behind her, there is also an anchor, which symbolizes hope, steadfastness, salvation, and tranquility. In this one painting Jones tells a story of the hardships black women face, but at the same time, he speaks to their faith and abundance.
Jones’ Mother and Child and Madonna Moderne might be reactions to the traditional paintings of European mother and child paintings that depict the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. In traditional paintings that were pervasive in historical European art, the Madonna and Baby Jesus are white, not black. There are diverse representations of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in varied settings and situations, and many of these depictions can be viewed at your local art museum. Here, Jones creates two situations that speak to the very real and still relevant circumstances of black mothers and their children. While both artworks might be alluding to the actual Virgin Mary and Jesus, I choose to interpret them in relation to modern times.
In Mother and Child, Jones paints a haloed mother with a little girl in her arms and an image of the crucified Jesus behind her. The child the mother holds is not a baby but a miniature little girl. This could hold some allusions to how the Baby Jesus is represented in many European paintings as a baby with adult features, as if he were never really a child. The little girl seems to never really have been a baby. The little girl is also adorned with a halo, implying the sanctified position of the black woman as creator of life. In the background is an image of a Black Jesus with a wreath of thorns around his head, implying that the image was created when he was being crucified. His eyes are closed, so perhaps he is already deceased. Having an image of a deceased young black man in the home is all too common for black mothers. And here the mother may have had other children, but her Christ child is dead. The church in the background has a barren tree with its roots visible in front of it. The tree, although barren, according to the Dictionary of Symbolism, symbolizes the “sheltering image of the ‘Great Mother’ rooted in the earth.” The tree also symbolizes nourishment. And the lone red rose on the windowsill symbolizes the resurrection. All of these elements together depict the state of the black mother when the painting was made, before, and after, as throughout time black mothers have feared for the lives of their sons and given life to daughters who never get to be little girls.
Madonna Moderne is rife with symbolic imagery. In the background is a barren tree that represents loss of life but at the same time also represents motherhood and shelter. In this instance the artist could be attempting to imply the lack of wealth black mothers possess, while at the same time depicting the nourishment they provide. A yellow flag hangs on the barren tree, as yellow symbolizes intellect, faith, and goodness. The yellow flag is right above the head of a mother holding a baby in her arms amidst a devastated environment. A white bird we can interpret as a dove, which symbolizes peace and love, is perched on the barren tree. So, although the black mother may not have much in material wealth, through her nourishment she shares intellect and love with her child. She stands on a prayer rug, and it is through the act of prayer that she finds strength to deal with her environment. Closer to the foreground is a cross that symbolizes life, as well as the acceptance of death. There is a clock between the outside and inside in the painting, representing the passage of time. Moving closer to the foreground of the painting, is another image of the mother. In this image she is crying. Her baby’s head is fractured. All of her nourishment and intellect could not save her child from the harsh world. Behind the mother in the foreground is an image of a white mother and child on the wall, a more traditional depiction of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. While the traditional depiction is lauded, the black mother and child are sacrificed in the perils of destitution and strife.
Though Frederick D. Jones was celebrated among and well known in his immediate community and in some spaces in New York. His death in 1996 went largely unacknowledged. There are even errors circulating in writing about when he was born and when he died. But uncovering this great artist and the complex work he created could reestablish him as a worthy legacy artist. According to Mutual Art, prices for his work range from $175 – $6710 dependent on size and medium. Placing him next to his more well-known contemporaries might allow for more close readings and interpretations of his work. Jones was a beloved artist, so many of his works are in private collections. But his work deserves to be seen for its complexity and contemporary relevance.
(Oral history interview with Frederick D. Jones, 1988 Nov. 8-10. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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