Frank Jones began to draw in 1964 while serving a life sentence for murder in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. (Jones maintained his innocence, but was incarcerated for most of his adult life.) His drawing materials were salvaged stubs of red and blue accountant’s pencils and sheets of typing paper from the trash cans in the prison office where he worked. Later, as his drawings received favorable attention inside and outside the prison, he was given better paper and new colored pencils. Jones experimented with other colors, but preferred red and blue, which he said represented fire and smoke.
Jones, an African American, was born with a portion of fetal membrane over his left eye. In the African American tradition, as well as the traditions of other cultures as ancient as those of Greece and Rome, such a veil allows people to see spirits and devils. Jones first saw his “haints” (haunts or ghosts) and “devils” when he was nine and continued to see them throughout his life. He created several hundred complex drawings of houses that reveal these “haints” in cell like rooms. His horned “haints” characteristically assume physical attributes of animals and inanimate objects. Jones signed many of his works with his prison number until someone taught him to write his name, which he usually misspelled.
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan Made with Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection in the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C. and London: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990)
“I draw them as I see them.” — Frank Jones quoted in Dee Steed, The Devil in Contemporary Primitive Art, unpublished paper, n.d; cited in Lynn Adele, Black History/Black Vision: The Visionary Image in Texas (Austin: Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, The University of Texas at Austin, 1989), 46.
Born around 1900 in Red River County, Texas, near Clarksville, Frank Jones spent twenty eight of his sixty nine years imprisoned in Texas for crimes he may not have committed. Details concerning Jones’s early life are scant. His father deserted the family when Jones was three or four years old, and his mother abandoned him on a street corner when he was around five or six.
After Jones was abandoned by his mother, he was taken in by Willie Dean Baker, an elderly black woman who raised him with the assistance of a neighbor, Della Gray. Jones never attended school or learned to read and write. During young adulthood he worked at a variety of odd jobs around Clarksville and neighboring towns.
Jones vividly recalled that his mother told him that he had been born with a “veil” or “caul” (part of the fetal membrane) over his left eye. Jones’s mother said that this veil would enable him to see spirits. The “spirit veil” belief is widespread in African American culture, and has its genesis in black West Africa. Children who are born with a veil over their eyes are believed to have the power to see and communicate with spirits, as well as the ability to foresee the future.
Jones saw his first spirit or “haint” when he was around nine years old. He continued to have supernatural visions for the rest of his life. He compared his “double sightedness” to looking into a peephole and viewing the spirit world. Jones alternately referred to the spirits he saw as “haints,” “devils,” and “devil haints,” but insisted that they were all the same. Assuming human, animal, bird, and inanimate forms, these devils were male or female and of many nationalities. For Jones their existence was real and universal, but to those who were not born with the veil they were invisible.
Jones’s supernatural powers were well known in his East Texas community, where his early life was spent uneventfully. His long history of imprisonment began in 1941 when he was accused of raping a young woman whom he had raised after finding her abandoned in 1935. The child’s mother appeared six years later and demanded the child. According to Jones, when he refused to relinquish custody of the girl, the mother charged him with rape. Jones claimed he was innocent, but was convicted and served two years and two months in prison.
Around 1945 Jones married Audrey Culberson, who had two adult sons. In 1949 Jones’s foster mother Della Gray was robbed and murdered. One of Jones’s stepsons was convicted of the murder and implicated Jones as well. Although Jones vigorously denied any knowledge of the crime, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He served nine years of the sentence and was paroled. Jones returned to Clarksville and made plans to remarry. In 1960, however, a woman whom he hired to clean his house accused him of raping her. Jones denied the charge, and insisted that he had been “set up” by the girl and a male neighbor who disliked him. Jones was returned to prison as a parole violator; the rest of his life was spent in prison.
Jones’s “artistic” career began during his third confinement in prison and spanned only a period of five years, from about 1964 to his death in early 1969. He focused on creating drawings, in red and blue pencil on paper, that invariably reflect visions based on experiences within prison and communication with the “haints” and “devils” of his spirit world.
Jones’s earliest drawings were done with materials he found around the prison recreation office where he was assigned to work. He used red and blue pencil stubs discarded by prison bookkeepers and inexpensive typing paper often retrieved from wastebaskets. Jones’s works received their earliest recognition through a prison art show in 1964. Shortly afterwards, a Dallas art gallery began marketing his work, and supplied him with larger, higher quality paper and additional colored pencils. Jones became increasingly prolific, and four months after his debut in the prison art show he held his first one man show at the gallery. This exhibition was well received by the public, and drew considerable media coverage that resulted in a number of interviews with Jones by members of the press. As a consequence of his prison celebrity status, Jones’s material existence improved considerably. Indeed, he enjoyed the media attention, as he had never had a single visitor or received a single piece of mail during the previous fifteen years. In addition, he was held in high esteem by his fellow inmates, and the income from the sale of his drawings allowed him to purchase a radio and wristwatch—the only two luxuries in his bleak prison life.
Although Jones was active artistically for only five years, his style underwent noticeable changes. His first drawings, completed in 1964, depict his characteristic “devil houses,” shown in multilevel architectural cross sections that reveal a variety of figures representing the spirits Jones claimed he saw. The colors red and blue dominate his drawings and he continued to prefer them even after he was provided with an array of colors. For Jones, red and blue symbolized smoke and fire and Hell. The spiked shapes that Jones identified as horns create patterns and also suggest movement. His early drawings are frequently populated by figures identified as flying fish and elongated winged figures shown in profile.
As Jones became more confident and his gallery supplied him with better materials, his“mature” style emerged. These later drawings are characterized by architectural structures filled with grinning figures that hover above floors and are suspended from ceilings. Enclosing the frenzied figures serves to neutralize them, not unlike how actual prison walls serve to limit the behavior of inmates. Although Jones was tormented and taunted by the devils of his spirit world, he rendered them powerless by capturing them on paper and enclosing them in cell like rooms. His representation of confined spirit people was also analogous to his life in prison.
The single motif that appears in the majority of Jones’s drawings is a large clock. Clocks hold a special significance for prisoners. Terms such as “doing time” or “pulling time” are common prison jargon, coupled with the fact that prison routine is regimented and based on strict time schedules. Since prisoners lose their freedom, they are constantly preoccupied with the passing of time and the time of their eventual release. In Jones’s earliest drawings empty circles appear at the top of his “spirit houses.” Later these circles developed into clocks with hands, indicating specific times; in some instances the clocks have multiple hands and appendages that spin off or orbit around them. These changes were probably related to Jones’s continual requests for parole and its subsequent denial by state authorities. By the late 1960s, Jones was suffering from progressive liver disease, which was the ultimate cause of his death.
Jones’s prison number, 114591, appears at the bottom of some of his drawings, placed there like a signature. Although a fellow inmate taught him to write his name, his spelling was inconsistent and he developed many curious variations.
Jones neither relinquished his dream of being released, nor wavered from his claim of innocence. As his health deteriorated, his artistic output remained constant. Early in February 1969 Jones’s parole was finally granted. His health suddenly worsened, however, and he was admitted to the prison hospital. Two weeks later, on February 15, 1969, Jones died while still incarcerated. Funds from his drawings provided him with a dignified funeral, and his remains were returned to Clarksville for burial.
The drawings of Frank Jones provide valuable insight into the spiritual state and artistic vision of a remarkably talented man whose life was characterized by unfortunate events. If Jones found any consolation or avenues of escape from his prison confinement and the “devil haints” who taunted him, it was through their capture and imprisonment in his “devil houses”. For as malevolent as they may have seemed, these “devil haints” were Jones’s constant companions and his most intimate acquaintances.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)