Leonard Jones is a man of few words. But then, words seem unnecessary when he can, instead, dip his house-painting brush (or his finger or, sometimes, a branch from a bush in his yard) into a can of house paint and work his magic on a sheet of roofing tin.
Jones lives in the same part of rural North Georgia where he’s lived for all his 44 years — in a house less than 10 miles from the farm where he grew up. When money’s short (and it often is, though big changes may be on the horizon), he lives without electricity and running water. He doesn’t own a car and has never had a driver’s license. “I just never got my license. There’s not much of anyplace to go around where I live, anyway,” the shy, refreshingly unpretentious artist told me during a recent conversation at Asheville’s American Folk Art gallery, as he dipped his index finger into a can of brownish paint and began to work it round and round on a piece of “tin” (galvanized steel roofing). Moments later, an ocher-hued face begins to take the shape of what Jones calls “a boy with a well bucket.”
Jones caught a Greyhound bus to Asheville for the opening of his first major exhibit. But he makes it clear that the city’s a place he only likes to visit. “I’d never move to a city,” he notes when asked about the possibility. Why? “Too much noise. Too many people,” he states without hesitation.
Not that Jones doesn’t like people, mind you. He just prefers them one at a time. Loving renditions of the people (or rather, the types of people) he grew up with populate his work. “A few of the people in my paintings are based on actual people I know, but most of them remind me of just about everybody I grew up around,” he explains.
Executed in deceptively simple, sweeping lines and marked by bright, primary colors, Jones’ paintings — done on pieces of roofing tin that have been given to him or gathered from the dump — offer glimpses of rural people caught in everyday acts: milking cows, feeding pigs, inspecting trinkets at yard sales, sipping coffee or Coca-Cola (the familiar Coke bottle is a favorite motif in Jones’ work; when asked why, he simply states, “It’s just popular, I guess.”).
A few of his pieces are more whimsical: “Wish Well 5c” features a brilliantly colorful yellow-and-red wishing well in one corner; in the opposite corner, a blissful-looking woman — her head festooned with a large yellow hat and her eyes dreamily closed — stands poised and wishing. “Rabbit Out of a Hat” and “Magic Trick” depict what appears to be the same young “magician” — pulling, as you might guess, a rabbit out of a hat. The former work is an oddly angled close-up, with the magician’s face and outstretched arm only halfway in the frame, and a white bunny — looking decidedly nonplused — nested in a large, looming black hat, which also extends off the frame. The latter offers a wider view of the overalls-clad young man and features the almost-palpably bobbing heads of three raptly attentive children in the foreground. When asked if he played magician games as a child, Jones answered, “Nah. I just made those up.” In most every work, Jones’ main “character” is smiling, the mouth a cheerfully upturned pink slash.
While the subject matter of Jones’ work could be described as simple and straightforward, the perspective from which he presents his art is anything but. Figures are executed at bizarre angles, often with only portions of heads, arms, hands and feet appearing. In “Slopping the Hogs,” for example, only the open-mouthed snouts of two hogs are visible at the bottom of the work, and the farmer’s head is tilted to such an extreme degree that only the top of his yellow hat is visible.
Jones says he’s been drawing all his life, but didn’t start painting seriously until he was 17, when he discovered a talent for rendering photographs and pictures that looked nearly identical to the originals. Word spread in his rural community, and soon friends and family were asking him to paint “copies” of their favorite photographs. “I don’t have time to do that much anymore,” he reveals. The first work Jones ever sold was a mountain landscape, painted from a picture in a book. “The person who bought it said the painting looked better than the print in the book,” he remembers, laughing softly. Jones starting painting on tin about six years ago, because he likes the look and feel of the material and, as he puts it, “It takes less paint, because it doesn’t soak in like it does on canvas.” He had previously painted on both wood and canvas, and tried both acrylics (“They dry too fast”) and traditional oil paints, before settling on house paint after he began to paint on metal roofing, because he says it simply seems appropriate.
Jones — who had always intended to go to college and study art, but “just kept putting it off” (he’s never attended a single art class) — occasionally works in the logging industry for extra money, as well as performing odd jobs for members of his family. “Sometimes I help some of my people — the older people that can’t do too much — a day or two out of the month, and sometimes more regular,” he explains, “but I mostly paint.”
Jones’ work is not “famous” yet, technically, but thanks to word-of-mouth publicity, due to appearances he’s made at regional folk festivals, his paintings now hang in widely scattered venues. “A lot of them are at a House of Blues somewhere in Florida and some are in New Orleans, and somewhere out West — I forget exactly where,” he reveals. “And they’re in some restaurants, and a lot of people put my work in their houses. It’s everywhere around the country, really.”
What gives Jones the most satisfaction about his chosen artistic path? Is it his burgeoning success? His rapidly growing exposure? Nah. “I just like to do it,” he says, with a modest grin.