Calvin Jones
Calvin Jones Credit: Courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group

When Calvin Jones died in Arcata, California, on August 21, few knew about it. There were no obituaries or notices for the 76-year-old, Chicago-born artist—one of the midwest’s premier Afrocentric painters, whose canvases have been shown in museums and galleries throughout the U.S., in Senegal and Nigeria, and in many local venues, most notably the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he was part of the canon-defining Art in Chicago, 1945-1995 exhibition. Jones may be best known for six murals he and Mitchell Caton painted on the south side between 1976 and 1987. Sponsored by a variety of arts and community groups, they combine African patterns and symbols with contemporary urban scenes, connecting Africa and America.

“He’s enormous,” says Nelson Stevens, professor emeritus of art at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a founding member of the national black art group AfriCOBRA (of which Jones wasn’t a member). “The reason he’s not better known, he’s not in the academy. But in terms of painting, he outpaints everybody. Those of us who know, know.”

The South Side Community Art Center, with which Jones had a 40-year affiliation, has organized a memorial show featuring videotapes and DVDs of him and his work, as well as a series of prints he made. It’s part of a larger exhibit, Images of the Past, which features pieces from the SSCAC’s collection of African-American art dating to the 1930s. Though the SSCAC stored many of Jones’s paintings for a decade, none are on view because the center was unable to work out a deal with his family.

Ill health slowed Jones’s artistic output in his final years. His last solo exhibit was at Elmhurst College in 2002. The last public work he did, in 2009, wasn’t really new at all. It was an eight-by-16-foot set of digitally printed panels—blowups of six earlier paintings—that were installed in the viaduct under Hyde Park’s 55th Street Metra stop. Jones couldn’t make the dedication.

The panels only hint at the dazzling color and textures of Jones’s canvases. Many of his earlier pieces depict figures of Africans and American blacks, some against patterned backdrops. Beginning in the 1980s, his studio work became more abstract, with barely any recognizable elements. Later works like Brilliant-as-the-Sun-Upon-the-World (Egungun) and The Cosmic Spectacle (Ju Ju) feature dense textile-like designs arrayed in diagonal planes and built up with fragments of dyed fabric and papier-mache. Reminiscent of West African kente or aso oke cloth, they have a ceremonial character.

Jones’s work was all the more remarkable in that he was legally blind for most of his career. In the early 1960s he developed serious symptoms of keratoconus, a corneal disorder that caused him, as he once told an interviewer, “to see light like a kaleidoscope, eight times.” As a result, says SSCAC curator and executive director Faheem Majeed, it’s uncertain whether “he was intentionally creating abstract imagery or painting what he actually saw.”

His paintings are hard to find because so few are in public collections. Locally, not even the DuSable Museum of African American History has one, though there’s a piece by Jones hanging in the mezzanine of the Harold Washington Library Center: Maskamorphosis IV, part of a series incorporating images of African masks.

Raised in South Chicago by his mother and various family members and friends, standing out in sports and art at Calumet High School, Jones received a four-year scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute, earning a BFA in 1957. He married Irene Tabron in the late 1950s (they divorced in the mid-60s), and soon had a son, Byron. In 1960, Jones moved his family to Kansas City, where he became the first black art director in Hallmark Cards’ advertising department. He opened his own studio there, Sales Graphic Advertising, then moved back to Chicago to work for Vince Cullers Advertising (the nation’s first black-owned ad agency, founded in 1956). In later years, as a freelancer, Jones was commissioned by the likes of the Seagram Company and the Hiram Walker Foundation to create paintings promoting African-American culture that later became limited-edition lithographs.

Jones’s eyesight was already failing by the time Chicago artist Alvin Hawkins met him in 1963. Hawkins had just graduated from Drake University and Jones took him under his wing, helping him build a portfolio at Sales Graphic and giving him job leads. “He was very influential in my life,” says Hawkins. “He was trying to get me away from being an illustrator. He’d look at my work and say, ‘Well, that’s pretty good. But do you want to be an illustrator or a painter?’ He was always focusing on bringing out the best that I can be. . . . He preached over and over, ‘Always be true to who you are.'”

In 1964, at 30, Jones was declared legally blind. He could see shape, color, and form, Hawkins says, but not line. “A lot of his work, when he was really having trouble with his eyes, had bold strokes and colors.”

“He was not a linear artist,” Nelson Stevens says. “He’s values”—meaning his strength lay in the gradation of colors from light to dark.

Weary of corporate life and getting more involved in the civil rights and black arts movements—wanting, as he put it, “to be a responsible communicator in the projection and relation of my heritage”—Jones started painting and teaching full-time. In 1970 he took a job codirecting South Shore’s AFAM Gallery Studio and Cultural Center, a showcase for Chicago’s African-American artists, cofounded the year before by his elementary school and SAIC classmate, Alfred Tyler. Jones exhibited his paintings and played percussion there for six years. “In those days, nobody had places to exhibit, and that’s why AFAM was founded,” he told me in 2008. “So I quit advertising and decided to get involved in the group.”

Interested in learning how to paint outdoor walls, Jones asked muralist Mitchell Caton if he could apprentice with him. “I thought I was going to clean his brushes and stuff like that,” Jones told me. But “Cat”—a fellow jazz aficionado whose real name was Theodore Burns Mitchell—soon took Jones on as a partner.

They practiced collaborative aesthetics decades before the concept developed its art-world buzz. The murals they created together—starting with A Time to Unite at 41st and Drexel (1976, with Justine DeVan) and running through Bright Moments, Memories of the Future, which still graces the New Regal Theater, 1641 E. 79th (1987)—are among the mural movement’s most stylistically complex achievements. Jones said that he’d have the overall design concept and then he and Caton, who died in 1998, would bounce ideas and images off each other and neighborhood residents, improvising in jazzlike fashion—”just doing it live.” Jones painted most of the portraiture and African images, evoking ancestral and community themes, while Caton did more abstract elements. But you can’t really tell who did what.

Soon after he turned 50, in 1984, one of Jones’s eyes “exploded,” he said, and he received corneal transplants that restored his vision to nearly twenty-twenty with glasses. In celebration of this visual rebirth, he painted Yoruba Man Resurrects, a 1987 work dominated by an earthen-red, totemic object that seems to rise and stretch against a field of muted colors.

Jones went to Arcata—about 280 miles north of San Francisco—in early August, to stay with his partner, Cynthia Ross. A former Chicago school teacher who’d known Jones in the late 1960s, Ross moved out west in 1989 and became a long-term care ombudsman. They became reacquainted eight years ago. While visiting for weeks each summer, Jones would undergo alternative therapies for a variety of ailments—heart and kidney conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cataracts. “We were on a journey, because he was going through his healing process,” says Ross. “He liked to come out here and touch the redwoods. He took chunks of bark back to Chicago to use in his artwork,” applying them to his painting surfaces.

Alvin Hawkins sensed that last summer’s trip would be Jones’s last. Just before Jones left, the two of them got together and drove to all their old south-side haunts, ending up at the storied soul food restaurant, Army & Lou’s. Jones told Hawkins he’d be in Arcata for a while. “The way he said it, I’m like, ‘Man, Jones is getting ready to split,'” Hawkins says. “I just had the feeling that this was it—this was our last little trip together.”

In California, the kidney condition became more acute, and Jones was told he’d need dialysis. “He said, ‘No dialysis,'” says Ross. Half of his ashes are in a redwood forest, and the other half are with his family.

Weeks after Jones died, the SSCAC began making plans for a memorial exhibit. “We love Calvin and wanted to honor him,” says Majeed, who’s been with the center since 2004.

Jones had a long relationship with the SSCAC, which was started with WPA funding to provide exhibition and classroom opportunities for blacks. On May 7, 1941, when he was seven, he attended the grand opening with his mother. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the facility, housed in a remodeled 19th-century mansion; the ceremony was broadcast live to the nation on CBS radio. Jones had a series of solo exhibits there in the 1970s and was involved in many workshops and panels.

For the memorial show, Ross made copies of tapes and disks containing interviews with Jones and pictures of his work. She also made a DVD copy of the August 2009 debut of the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra’s Calvin Jones Suite, at an outdoor concert during the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in San Francisco. Ross, who’d commissioned the 25-minute piece, was there, but Jones didn’t make it to California that summer. Shelby had visited him in Chicago the previous year, and the two spent a day talking about Jones’s life and art as well as jazz and race. Shelby based the suite on Yoruba Man Resurrects, another painting called The Grand Queen Yay Yay, and Jones’s struggles with keratoconus. “I loved Calvin,” Shelby writes in an e-mail. “He inspired me. I wanted to create music that honored his approach to painting—his use of color, theme variation, and Afro-centric commentary. I also wanted to honor Calvin, the person.”

Ross later played the DVD for Jones. “Calvin just shook his head up and down,” she says, as if to say, Yes.

The SSCAC had 15 of Jones’s paintings, the most in any one place. A few were always hung throughout the building, and the rest were stored in a temperature-controlled, metal-doored basement storage room. “I did my best to get his work out to show people,” Majeed says. “It was phenomenal work just sitting there, taking up space.”

Jones’s canvases shared the SSCAC vault with some 300 works dating back to the 1930s, including paintings by many of the nation’s leading African-American artists—center founders Charles White, Archibald Motley Jr., Eldzier Cortor, Bernard Goss, and Margaret Burroughs (who died three months after Jones), as well as Ralph Arnold, Henry Avery, and William Scott. It’s a little-seen treasure trove.

“The collection is made up of artists that we’ve had a personal relationship with,” Majeed explains. “These artists made that work for us. It wasn’t something left or stored here. We own it.” He adds that hundreds of additional works have been abandoned at the center after exhibitions.

But the SSCAC didn’t own Jones’s paintings. He was just parking them there, allowing the center to show them whenever it wanted. “We have all these very casual arrangements,” says Majeed. So when Jones’s sister and closest Chicago-area relative, Alletta Jumper, came with a truck to haul the paintings away in September, there was little the center could do about it. (Jones’s son, Byron, lives in Las Vegas.)

Majeed had hoped to get them back for the memorial show, but, Jumper says, “We weren’t able to get any of the physical art there because . . . of the insurance.” She told me that the 100-plus art pieces Jones left would be appraised, and either sold or displayed as part of an exhibition. “We just don’t want to do it haphazardly.”

Jumper also plans to set up a foundation to help provide scholarships for gifted art students with an interest in social justice and cultural heritage.

The work “rightly belongs to them, or to her, and she’s doing the right thing,” reflects Majeed—though he hopes the center can show it again some day.

Meanwhile, he forged ahead with the memorial, creating a show with videos, recordings, music sheets, a slide show, and the Hiram Walker Foundation lithographs. In lieu of actual paintings, viewers can see images of almost all of the pieces Jumper reclaimed. Videos of Jones’s work will still be available for viewing after the show closes on March 27.

A little ironically, considering the loss of the Jones canvases, the SSCAC is currently renovating a third-floor space into a museum-quality storage archive and study center, thanks to a $67,000 American Express preservation grant. “We’re not a history museum. We continue to support current artists,” Majeed says. “But the archive takes us into future possibilities.