The phrase "it's
right on the money" tells the whole story.
S.C. artist John Jones
has brought scenes of Southern slavery to the American public through an
unusual stimulus: 150-year-old Confederate bills.
Through a vibrant
palette of acrylics, Jones' paintings portray slaves during the Civil War
period. But these aren't pictures pulled from Jones' imagination. They are
accurate reproductions of images found on the paper money circulated by
Jones first became
intrigued with Confederate money while working as a graphic artist at a
Charleston blueprint company in 1996. "After enlarging a Confederate
bank note for a customer," Jones said, "I found myself looking
at a picture of slaves picking cotton."
From that initial
encounter, Jones went on a journey to discover how the images of slaves
were used on Confederate states money. He searched the Internet and hunted
through flea markets and hobby shops. His findings shocked him.
Engravings of slaves
were everywhere: hoeing the fields, picking cotton, carrying the cotton,
bringing cotton bales to the market, to the steamboat and to the train.
Since states could charter banks, there were bank notes showing slaves
cooking for their white masters in South Carolina, picking sugar cane in
Tennessee and Alabama, and harvesting turpentine in Georgia.
Most of the men, women
and children were smiling, clean, healthy and well-fed. Not exactly a true
picture of Southern blacks during the Civil War.
What was the point?
"Cotton and slaves
were the foundations on which the economy of the South was built,"
Jones said. "They were important properties proudly displayed on its
Southern states wanted
slavery to be seen in a positive light. Depicting black people happily
working for their masters was good for Southern morale as well as a way to
drum up support in the North.
Jones has painted 80
paintings from the 122 bills which he has collected. The traveling
exhibit, "Confederate Currency: The Color of Money" will be on
display at Benedict College in Columbia through Dec. 18. It includes 70
paintings that correspond to 72 framed currencies.
The juxtaposition of
the bright paintings alongside the dull paper money provokes the viewer.
Jones' colorful images are no accident.
"I tried to use
the vibrant colors to empower the slaves and also to tell a story of
confrontation, because the paintings quietly subvert the original intent
of the engravers," Jones said. He views himself as a "visual
storyteller"; both art and stories are an integral part of his
personal history. His paternal great-grandmother, Charlotte Jones, died in
1967 at age 109, when Jones was a young teenager. She told Jones stories
of what it was like to be a slave, and he saw the scars across her back
from being whipped.
Jones, who has been
painting since he was 6, took illustration courses in military school but
is primarily self-taught. Drafted into the Army in 1970, Jones served in
the Vietnam War and painted a 25-foot-long mural in Korea.
His work is on display
in the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, Charleston's city hall, and the
College of Charleston. Paintings that sell for between $1,500 and $3,000
(bank note included) are available through the Rita Smith Gallery in
Columbia and Gallery Chuma in Charleston.
Juliette Harris, editor
of International Review of African American Art, commented that Jones is
part of the "leading edge of African American artists who are
re-engaging the past in a way that is political but has never before been
While Jones' paintings
demonstrate some nostalgia for the pastoral life of the old South,
"he is also critiquing the deceptive romanticism of the
engravers," she said.
If pictures are worth a
thousand words, then Mr. Jones' paintings can each be read like a history