Old South Money Artist's Inspiration

By Basinger, Brian | The Florida Times Union, May 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

Old South Money Artist's Inspiration


Basinger, Brian, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Brian Basinger, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- Artist John W. Jones almost missed the inspiration for the work that now brings him fame.

The Army veteran was working in a blueprint shop seven years ago when a customer asked him to enlarge a $10 bill issued in 1853 by the Farmers & Exchange Bank of Charleston.

As Jones executed what was an everyday task for him, he suddenly noticed a small image of black slaves on the bill.

"I'd seen Confederate money before," said the free-lance artist, himself a descendent of slaves. "But I never really paid attention to what was on the currency."

During the following year, Jones immersed himself in the history of Southern money, traveling to see private collections, while purchasing his own antique paper bills on the Internet and at flea markets.

His area of interest focused largely on money issued in Southern states between 1850 and 1865, the year the Civil War drew to a close and all Southern money was rendered useless.

Jones was amazed by the currency's depiction of American slaves: happily picking cotton, smiling broadly under the hot Southern sun.

"They were deliberately done by the South to promote to the North that slavery wasn't as bad as it seemed to be," said Jones, a South Carolina native, now 53.

It was then that he decided to reproduce the currency images in a series of enlarged acrylic-on-canvas paintings, using a full spectrum of color not available to 19th-century printers.

"It's history. It's history that has been hidden for many years," Jones said. "I'm not trying to make this grand statement. It speaks for itself. This is not revisionist history. This has been on that money for a long time."

More than two dozen of Jones' works will be on display at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in downtown Atlanta until Dec. 15.

The exhibit, "Confederate Currency: The Color of Money," includes several decades worth of Southern bank note images from such locales as Savannah, Charleston, S.C., Richmond, Va., and Tallahassee, Fla., to name a few.

Among the collection is the oldest known currency ever to feature African-Americans: a $5 bill issued in 1820 by the Farmers & Merchants Bank of Augusta.

So far, Jones has made 87 paintings.

His buyers, including rap music mogul Russell Simmons, have offered as much as $7,000 to own one of the works.

A careful look at the collection shows how the slave art evolved over the decades preceding the Civil War.

The initial bills from Augusta offer a snapshot from a seemingly typical day on a Southern cotton farm. Slaves work the ground, devoid of almost any emotion -- showing neither joy, nor pain.

But 30 years later, as the acquisition of Western territories fueled the debate over slavery's future, the Southern monies began to show blacks with different attitudes.

Strong, robust black women easily carried cotton bales as if they had the weight of bread loaves. Children frolicked with their parents as they worked the fields. Smiles and sunshine are ubiquitous.

"They were pretty deliberate about what they wanted to show," Jones said. "You never see slave children being sold, or slaves being whipped."

Evoking the haunting reality of the "peculiar institution," the King Center borrowed artifacts from the Atlanta History Center, including Civil War-era plows, pitchforks and a scythe, adding the farm tools to Jones' exhibit. …

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