The Fantasy World of Fred D. Jones
Re-Discovering His Life in Art
Jerry L. Langley
Frederick D. Jones (1913-1996) was a prolific, Chicago artist whose career spanned more than five decades. During his formative years, when a gritty, urban, social realism dominated the work of African American artists, Jones developed a dreamy, romantic style of fantasy. His artwork was exhibited and marketed across the country and was widely collected. However, like many talented African American artists of his generation, he received little recognition in the mainstream art world and his death went largely unnoticed.
Fortunately, a significant documentation of Jones’ career occurred in 1988 when the Smithsonian Institution selected him for interview in an oral history program that collected information on significant, overlooked black artists. Much of the information in this article was drawn from that 85 page record now in the archives of the National Museum of American art.1
Jones appears to have been born in 1913 in Raleigh, North Carolina, possibly to a Frederick Douglass Jones and Lula Jones.2 He has been referred to by a number of names, including Fred Jones, Frederic Jones, Frederick Douglas Jones, Frederick D. Jones, Frederick D. Jones, Jr., and, in the 1920 US Census, perhaps FDJ Jones. All or most of his pre-teen years probably were spent in the seaport town of Georgetown, South Carolina. 3 At a very young age, he began doodling, emulating tourist artists who sketched and painted harbor scenes. “It intrigued me,” he recalled. “I thought that I might like to do this one day. I got hooked.”
Jones’ father, a pharmacist, decided to move the family to Atlanta so that he could open a new pharmacy and appears to have done so in the 1920s.4
In Atlanta, Jones attended Booker T. Washington High School and is shown in a group photo in its 1930 yearbook.
As a major railroad hub in the South, Atlanta had become a commercial and financial center and was the capital of the so-called “New South.” Race relations were somewhat better there than elsewhere in the Deep South and many blacks were able to prosper in its new economy under the old racial order. The city had a thriving African American business and professional community which was centered on the renowned “sweet Auburn Avenue.”
With four black colleges (Clark, Spelman, Morehouse, and Morris Brown) and the Atlanta University Center, Atlanta was a regional center for black higher education and gave rise to a black elite. Atlanta University president John Hope had traveled in Europe and Spelman art professors Nancy Prophet and Hale Woodruff had lived and worked in France. The two artists promoted many visual arts programs at the Atlanta University Center during the 1930s. Prophet, Woodruff, W.E.B. DuBois (who accepted an academic position at Atlanta University in 1933) and other worldly black residents brought a sophisticated, cosmopolitan air to Atlanta’s large African American community.
This cultural climate afforded good opportunities for young Fred Jones to develop as an artist. He and Wilmer Jennings, another Atlanta youngster aspiring to be an artist, met Hale Woodruff when they visited the campuses of Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. Woodruff was so impressed with their artistic potential that he took them under his wings and gave them special instruction.
Woodruff really “carried my world…he taught me a lot and was like a father...,” Jones recalled. He said this mentoring took place sometime between 1929 and 1932 while he was in high school. It provided Jones with his first substantive art training as he learned how to formally appreciate art and how to render figures on paper and canvas. In 1930, he was quite excited when he was able to sell his first painting for $25. 5
After high school, Jones enrolled at Clark College which did not have an art program. He remained there only until his third year.
In the mid-1930s, Jones studied at the Britt School of Art in Atlanta. Ralph Britt, a white artist, was very interested in black art. Both Britt and Hale Woodruff had attended the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis and perhaps some of Britt’s interest in black artists stemmed from an association with Woodruff.
At this time, Jones was working at the Coca Cola plant, filling water bottles 6 to earn spending change. By chance, Harrison Jones, Coca Cola’s board chairman, saw some of Jones’ artwork and liked it. When Britt determined that he had taught Jones all he could, Harrison Jones agreed to sponsor the young artist’s studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and had him transferred to the Chicago plant so that he could attend the school at the company’s expense.
In 1940, Jones left Atlanta to fulfill his dream of refining his painting skills at the Art Institute. His parents were not elated about his career choice but he was persistent and noted that he “wasn’t about to be a chemist or pharmacist.”7
The great migration of southern blacks was continuing to flow into Chicago in 1940. The influx was concentrated in a congested 50-block area on the south side of the city. This area’s rich cultural life included the WPA-sponsored South Side Community Art Center which provided support for young, aspiring artists.
One of only a few African American students at the Art Institute, Jones began to establish his own style as he learned more about colors, composition, what to paint and how to paint it. In addition, he studied French and Russian painting styles and took a course in sculpture which he liked, but he preferred painting more.
In 1940, Fred Jones painted The Flutist, a theme he would re-visit decades later. With its many mythological associations, the flute was a perfect symbol in the enchanting style that he was developing.
Jones learned both from the instruction he received at the Art Institute and from the many talented artists who were participating in the classes, exhibits and social programs at the South Side Community Art Center. These artists include Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, Charles Sebree, Margaret Goss (Burroughs) and Gordon Parks, whom Jones dubbed the “painter with a camera.”
“You had some fine artists ...at the South Side Community Art Center,” Jones stated, “we all became involved sort of like a brotherhood…Everybody was learning from everybody.” In particular, Jones learned a lot from Charles White and Eldzier Cortor. For example, he said he learned how to capture strength in a painting from White, and from Cortor he learned how to develop a very sensitive style that was “light” and “very flowing.”
Jones also pointed out that he and Cortor had similar ideas about how to tell the story about the black struggle they were experiencing and witnessing. They chose to tell the story in a more sensitive, “fantasy way” in their artwork rather than presenting it in its harshest form. ‘You could make it beautiful,” he said. He and Cortor often had their works on exhibit at the same local art fairs. According to Jones, the paintings of the two artists were sometimes placed across from each other and folks couldn’t tell which was which.
Excelling at the Art Institute, Jones made the honor roll, was selected to be one of a few class monitors, and saw his artwork included among those presented by instructors as examples of student achievement. He was one of only four Art Institute students (and the only African American) to get invited to show at the Chicago and Vicinity exhibitions.
Jones also participated in art competitions and won awards while he was a student. He entered work in the Atlanta University Annual Art Competition in 1942 and 1943 and won its Second Purchase Award for Watercolor in 1943 for his Wash Day painting.
His studies at the Art Institute were interrupted from 1943 to 1946 by his service in the U.S. Navy where he served as a pharmacist mate. Fortunately, his schedule permitted him time to paint daily. During his Navy service, he and fellow artist, Hughie Lee-Smith, became good friends. Lee-Smith was attached to a special service division at the Chicago Great Lakes Naval Base and was creating portraits of black naval personnel.8 Lee-Smith went on to develop a style marked by scenes of isolation and desolation, elements of which also can be seen in some of Jones’ works.
Following his tour of duty, Jones returned to the Art Institute of Chicago and completed his studies in 1947. During his senior year, he was commissioned in 1946 to paint two murals for the First Church of Deliverance in Chicago, one behind the altar and the other in the foyer. He returned in 1986 to restore them at the age of 73. In appreciation and remembrance, the church uploaded avideo entitled First Church of Deliverance: A History Lesson & Artist Fred Jones on YouTube on May 25, 2012. The video shows the tribute the church paid to him at the beginning of the restoration for his artistic contributions to the church and the community. 9
In 1947, Jones became the assistant director of the South Side Community Art Center for a year. In acknowledging the significance of the Center at the time, he observed: “[T]he Center had quite an impact on Black artists in the WPA days and right after because there wasn’t anything else around…that they could go to express themselves and they certainly didn’t meet the type of black artists that they met at the art center…[T]here you met people who were polished in their art.”
The post-war period was a time of rising expectations and opportunities for black artists who now had access to formal study through the GI Bill. Jones along with Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, and Charles Sebree established a reputation for themselves in both the black and white communities in Chicago. According to Jones, the white patrons always were very picky as they sought out the best works, while the emerging black patrons often bought their artwork just to be supportive, even when they couldn’t afford it.
On his departure from the South Side Community Art Center, Jones continued working for Coca Cola filling tankers 10 at the Chicago plant and painted in the evenings and on the weekends. He traveled downtown and across the country exhibiting and selling his artwork through galleries, exhibitions, and individual sales to collectors. He was widely known in the Tri-State Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin area and well established at an art show in New York City. He was also a major presence in the Atlanta University annuals. He submitted 18 entries between 1942 and 1961,receiving awards for four oils after 1948 for The Daughter of Eve, Madonna Moderne, Concerto, and Our Lady of Peace. 11
When big art engagements came up, he was able to take off from work for a couple of weeks to handle them. His work during this period included sculptures which, he noted, were difficult to exhibit because they sold so fast. They usually ended up in private collections.
Jones generally made good money from the sale of his art, sometimes more than he made from his job. So when he was given the opportunity in 1973 to retire from Coca Cola with a full pension after 35 years, he took it in order to pursue his art full time. And, he continued to market his artwork at galleries and art fairs across the country, especially in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana; and in Boston, New York City, and Nashville, Tennessee.
Artist Earl Hooks, a very good friend of Jones, lived in Nashville and was a professor of art and chairman of the art department at Fisk University between 1968 and 1998. The two met at an Indiana art fair apparently during the 1950s and Hooks, while at Fisk, would often help him out when his art business was slow. He would connect Jones with a local white gallery which enabled Jones to sell artwork at Vanderbilt, Tennessee State, and Fisk Universities.
One of his favorite local fairs was the annual 57th Street Art Fair in Chicago, which he rarely missed participating in since starting to show there in 1958. 12 He reportedly exhibited hundreds of his watercolors and oils at the fair over the years as well as some enamel and woodcut artwork. At age 74 while participating in the 1987 fair, he told a Chicago Tribune reporter that it was “the Zenith of art fairs” because “[y]ou are with your peers, and the people who attend know art.” 13 He also noted that this fair was the “best way to make $2,000 a day.” At that time, his watercolors sold for up to $675 and his oils went for up to $7,000.
However, there were earlier times when he needed money and sold some of his artwork for a lot less. Sylvia Peters, one of his patrons who knew him after he retired from Coca Cola, recalls that there were times when he sold some “wonderful pieces” for $45-$65 in order to get some cash. 14
In his 1988 interview with the Smithsonian, Jones noted that it generally was not easy for black artists to get into the art fairs because they had predominately white participation and one had to be invited after slides of one’s artwork were reviewed. However, this wasn’t much of a problem for Jones. After he developed a reputation in the 1940s, the art fairs sought him out.
In marketing his artwork, Jones is quoted in a May 30, 1984, Hyde Park Herald newspaper article, as saying that he did “oils for the East Coast galleries and prints for the West Coast.” However, his specialty was always watercolor.
Also, as reported in a May 20, 1987, Chicago Tribune article Jones had a straight-forward explanation for his intriguing and often romanticized imagery that sometimes bordered on the surreal: “[P]ainting is a simple thing. You make a simple statement. You tell the truth, really. Make it flamboyant and beautiful, but tell the truth.”
He, like Cortor, often painted graceful images of black women with “nice, long, and thin” necks. When he observed this characteristic on African women from Ethiopia and Ghana and on some African American women such as Whitney Houston, he concluded that it might be an African trait. A good example of this style is the July 7, 1958 painting in the Minnesota Museum of American Art collection. It was included in the museum’s August 2011-fall 2012 touring exhibition which featured the 30 most significant works in its collection and was entitled Our Treasures: Highlights from the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Discussing the artist and describing the July 7 painting in her essay in the exhibition catalog, Carleton College student Megan Williams stated in part:
"Jones’ art reflects his friendships with artists such as Eldzier Cortor…whose figures share Jones’ African abstraction, and Hughie Lee-Smith, an artist Jones met in the Navy who was involved in the American Surrealist movement…The figure of the woman is composed of elongated cylindrical shapes that curve dreamily from the bottom of the scene almost to the top of the frame…Her head is perched atop an impossibly long neck, typical of his female figures, with a facial expression that is vacant and masklike – in keeping with what he called his “African mark,” a term that refers to the elements of his style that suggest an African aesthetic."
The carefully placed symbols of Christianity and card-playing, and elegance and dilapidation, add touches of paradox to the courtship scene. The lovely but slightly mysterious imagery was appealing to the African American community of 1950s Chicago.
Jones and Cortor were among a few African American artists who depicted nudes and semi-nude black women to portray their natural beauty. One such work is Jones’ Black Lady Godiva painting in the collection of Jan and Sylvia Peters of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Works of the artist are reported to be in many prominent collections beyond the ones mentioned above, including those of the DuSable Museum of African American Art, the South Side Community Art Center, IBM, Amoco Oil, Standard Oil, Walter O. Evans, Larry and Brenda Thompson, Darrell Walker, Clark D. Baker, III, Carnetta and Norm Davis, the Belgium Embassy in Washington, D.C., James T. Parker, and Donnell Walker.
Indeed his works were so appealing that he could not decorate his Hyde Park home with them because people would come by and want to buy the art right off the walls. In one instance, a persistent physician attempted to buy a painting so many times after being told it was not for sale that Jones finally put what he must have considered to be a ridiculously extravagant price of $1,100 on it. He was surprised when the physician bought it without hesitation.
Both Jones and his wife, Jean, had their favorite pieces of his works. Jean’s favorite was The Apple Girl, a watercolor Jones made of a young black girl picking apples. She told him not to sell this painting and it was kept wrapped in brown paper and out of sight. Jones’s favorite was a watercolor painting entitled Eve, a nude holding an apple and wearing a white lace veil. However, he wasn’t as resolute about keeping this one. He parted with it when a buyer offered him a price he couldn’t refuse - $675.
Not much is known about Jones’ family life. According to collector Sylvia Peters, he never talked much about his family. Peters knew his wife Jean and was aware that the couple had a son and daughter named Carol. She notes that Jean was a tap dancer and that many of the female images in Jones’ artwork resembled her. Also, during a telephone interview, former Southside Community Art Center board member Frances Minor stated that she knew Jean and believes that Jean had worked as an entertainer in New York City.
Most publications providing information about Jones state that he died in 2004. This date, however, is incorrect. On January 12, 1996, the First Church of Deliverance presided over the funeral services for “Frederick Douglas Jones” in Chicago. In the funeral program, it notes that Jones, a “Black Renaissance Artist,” was born on May 18, 1913 and died on January 7, 1996, leaving behind his wife, one son [Gene], four grandchildren, and two great grand children. Today, Peters and others note that Jones’ wife and son are now deceased and that the location of the other relatives is unknown.
The only newspaper coverage of his death that can be found is a brief obituary published by the Chicago Sun Times on the day of his funeral. It notes that Jones had become known locally as “the Michelangelo of the First Church of Deliverance” because of the murals he created and restored at the church.
As a testament to his artistic talents, Fred Jones artwork still seems to be quite popular. Over the past six years, nine of his works were offered for sale in the Swann Galleries’ African American Fine Art Auctions in New York City. All of them sold, with prices ranging from $720 for Maiden, a small dry point aquatint etching in Lot 25 of the February 2011 auction, to $5,760 for Untitled (two women and a boy with a Balloon), a watercolor painting in Lot 42 of the October 2011 auction.
Jerry L. Langley is an art collector, art researcher and attorney who lives in the metro Washington, DC area.
1. Oral history interview with Frederick D. Jones, November 8-10, 1988, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
2. While it is generally accepted that Jones spent his early years in Georgetown, South Carolina, various publications have given different times for his year of birth (i.e., 1913 and 1914) and different locations for his place of birth (i.e., Raleigh, North Carolina and Georgetown, South Carolina). The 1920 U.S. Census shows that an F D Jones (age 33, black of South Carolina) and Lula Jones (age 25, black of South Carolina) resided in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1920 with their son FDJ Jones (age 7) who is presumed to be the artist. A 1920 US Census search under the son’s name reveals a record that states that he was born in 1913 in North Carolina. This year of birth is the same year given for Fred Jones’s birth in the program for the artist’s funeral which was held at the First Church of Deliverance in January 1996. A copy of the program was obtained from Theresa Christopher, the Registrar of the DuSable Museum of African American History.
With respect to his place of birth, the background of Jones’s father appears to provide relevant information. Jones acknowledges that his father was a pharmacist. The library records at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina show that a Frederick Douglass Jones graduated from the university with a Ph.G. Degree in 1913 (the year of birth of the artist), per the university’s Librarian - Ms. Peterson. This type degree was awarded to graduates of Shaw University’s Leonard School of Pharmacy which existed between 1891 and 1918. (See: info. on Google.Com ref. Shaw University History and Dr. William V. Bridgeford, a graduate of the school.) It was also found that artist Fred Jones listed Raleigh, North Carolina, beneath his name on his resume, presumably to identify his place of birth.
4. Chicago Tribune article by Pat Higgins, May 20, 1987 captioned: At 74, Artist Puts His Heart, Soul into Painting. Also, the 1930 US Census cites a Lula Jones (38, black of South Carolina) as widowed and head of household in Atlanta, Georgia in 1930 with her son Frederick Jones (16). A 1930 Census search under the name of Frederick Jones revealed that the son (presumably the artist) was born about 1913 in North Carolina. Since Lula Jones is listed as widowed, it is possible that Jones’s father died in the 1920s while the artist was very young. However, this could not be confirmed.
5. Chicago Tribune, ibid.
8. Two Black Artists from the FDR Era: Marion Perkins, Frederick D. Jones, 1990, by Ramon B. Price, p. V.
9. First Church of Deliverance’s May 25, 2012, YouTube.Com video entitled First Church of Deliverance: A History Lesson & Artist Fred Jones. Jones also sculptured the doors at the church at some point. In addition, a presenter in the video stated that the artist attended the Rhode Island School of Design before he attended the AIC. Both his resume (which was obtained from Philadelphia collector Donnell Walker) and In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection, 2012, by Tina Dunkley and Jerry Cullum (p.224)also state that he attended the Rhode Island School of Design . However, after a thorough search of the schools records was made, the Director of Alumni Relations for the school advised this writer by email that they could find no record of a Fred or Frederick Jones having attended the school. His obituary given in the First Church of Deliverance funeral program states that he attended the School of Design in New York.
10. Chicago Tribune, footnote 4, and footnote 8, p. I.
11. In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection, 2012.
12. Hyde Park Herald newspaper article, May 30, 1984, p. 9 (archives).
13. Chicago Tribune, footnote 4.
14. November 2012 telephone interviews with collector Sylvia Peters who has a number of works by Fred Jones and currently serves on the board of the Museum of Art in Knoxville, Tennessee.