Statesman Staff Writer
Did you know there is a mural inside the Dexter Post Office? Did you know that mural was painted by a St. Louis native whose art was featured on the cover of Time magazine two times?
Joseph John Jones' art work is on display in state museums in New York, Ohio, New Jersey and the Smithsonian. Selections of his work are now on exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum.
Jones was born April 7, 1909 in St. Louis, the son of a middle class family. He never finished high school and followed in his father's footsteps as a house painter. He did not study art but was self-taught.
The mural at the local Post Office is entitled, "Husking Corn," and was painted in 1941. At that time, Jones was working on the Public Works of Art Project, overseen by the Treasury Department. Many of these works are referred to as WPA projects, but this is not really accurate. The Treasury Department commissioned artists to paint these murals during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The mural is owned by the Smithsonian Institute with the Post Office listed at the caretaker. The mural was restored in 1988.
Jones also has a mural on display at the Charleston Post Office entitled, "Harvest," which was painted during the same time period.
A publication entitled, "A Guide to the 'Show Me' State", was published in 1941 by a state agency. The publication covered everything from the geography of the state, to literature, to historical places and even featured a section on famous Missouri artists.
The following was written about Jones:
"Equally vigorous in his depiction of the Midwest is Joe Jones, who once summarized his autobiography as 'Born St. Louis 1909. Self- taught.' Son of a house painter, he finished Benton Grade School in St. Louis at 14, ran off to California, and returned to paint houses with his father until the depression put the family on relief. Jones then began painting pictures. Soon he interested members of the St. Louis Artists Guild in his work, and opened an art class for the unemployed. In 1935, his first one-man show was held in New York, where he has since achieved a growing reputation."
Jones left St. Louis when he was 27 years old for New York City where his work attracted attention. Jones' first painting to gain acclaim was entitled, "Wheat," and was displayed at the Whitney Museum in New York City. By 1937 his work was featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He got the attention of Time magazine which acquired a Jones painting in 1937 as part of a collection of 85 living American artists.
Also in 1937 he was commissioned by a Guggenheim fellowship to depict a scene from the Dust Bowl. "Wastelands" was produced by Jones as the result. That work is part of the Realists Paintings collection, owned by Ben and Beatrice Goldstein and listed in the Library of Congress.
He was initially labeled a Midwest regional artist and listed alongside another more famous Missouri artist, Thomas Hart Benton. Jones was not like Benton. His observations of social injustice led him to be termed a "socialist/realist". The popularity he had gained in New York faded when he became a member of the communist party. He was labeled a "proletarian painter". Even though the depression had popularized socialism and communism with literary works by John Steinbeck and Jack London, his political agenda proved damaging to his career.
Diane Toroian Keaggy, a writer with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, provided information about Jones in an Oct. 10, 2010 article previewing the exhibit of his art at the St. Louis Art Museum.
Keaggy said that 26 pieces of a large mural were found in a closet at a home in Fort Smith, Ark. They were used as a lining in the closet. The mural depicted three scenes: Miners striking, sharecroppers starving and a black woman fighting to halt the lynching of her husband. A curator in Little Rock was contacted, and he bought the pieces sight-unseen. The work became the property of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. There was no interest in restoring the work though, due to the violent and extreme political content of the mural.
Jones painted the mural in 1935 while staying at Commonwealth College in Mena, Ark. The story goes that he volunteered to paint it, if $35 could be raised to pay for the supplies. The mural was 40 feet by 11 feet in size. Commonwealth College was noted as a "bastion of radical socialism" at that time.
The St. Louis Art Museum paid to restore one section of the mural and chose the panel depicting the black woman pleading for the life of her husband who was being lynched. That restored piece is part of the current exhibit at the museum. Conservator Paul Haner was in charge of restoring the section of mural. The piece is on loan to the St. Louis Art Museum from the Heirs of Joe Jones.
In the late 1930s Jones entered the Public Works Art Project where he began painting murals in federal buildings. The murals depicted agricultural scenes such as those at the Dexter and Charleston Post Offices.
Time magazine wrote a story entitled, "Angry Man Calms Down," in the Oct. 22, 1951 issue. According to the article, Jones removed "class war from his paintings". It was during this period that Time used his artwork for the cover of their Modern Living section on travel.
His work again appeared on the cover of a Christmas issue of Time in 1961. His artwork was also featured in a print advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Jones died from a heart attack in 1963. He is much less known than Benton but was a major contributor to the Depression era art scene.
The Joe Jones exhibit is on display at the St. Louis Museum of Art through Jan. 2, 2011. The exhibit is open Tuesdays through Sundays. The cost is $4 to $8, with free admission on Fridays.