Notes Inspire Artist’s Work

Artist John W. Jones doesn’t see himself as a teacher.

Yet through his thought-provoking paintings of Confederate money, he teaches an important lesson in history.

His exhibit, Confederate Currency: The Color of Money, Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency, will be on display through Feb. 29 at the Broward County Main Library.

Through his vibrant paintings, Jones illustrates how and why many banks and governments in the South engraved depictions of slaves on their currency before, during and after the Civil War.

”All our lives we were told we were worthless,” said Jones, a self-taught artist. “Obviously slavery and cotton was important to the South. Otherwise it wouldn’t be on their money.”

Jones was inspired to start the project about seven years ago when he was working at a blueprint company in Charleston.

”A client brought one of these notes in and asked me to scan and print it out large,” Jones said. “I noticed there was slaves on it. I’d seen Confederate money before and never knew what was on it until that day.”

Jones went on eBay and “hit the jackpot.”

He started collecting the bills, each with a minuscule drawing, of such subjects as black families working in cotton fields and overseers keeping watch. He began reproducing them on a larger scale using bright, eye-catching colors.

”I painted these exactly as I saw them, without revision,” he said. “To bring back to life what I saw.”

Many of the images show figures in what Jones’ calls “an unnatural state of bliss.”

Some of the images originated in northern banks. Printers in the South simply ”recycled” those illustrations, changing the white laborers into black slaves, keeping the identical image. This is represented in Jones’ piece Slave Picking Corn. A white farmer depicted on a $3 note from Washington, D.C., is later adapted into a Virginia note with a smiling black slave carrying a basket of corn.

Jones feels the use of such widespread depictions of happy slaves helped to mislead the public on the issue of slavery.

It is part of a history not well documented, Jones said.

”Ninety-seven percent have never seen Confederate money, let alone what’s on it,” Jones said.

One image, Slave Mother and Child shows a portrait of a happy mom with her child in hand, depicted during a time when families were actually being separated and children sold.

Another shows an overseer with a whip sitting upon his horse, looking over a field where slaves are picking cotton.

It’s ”a fascinating story and a historical piece,” said Tanya Simons-Oparah, outreach services director at the library. She saw the detailed catalog of the traveling exhibit before it arrived in Fort Lauderdale.

”It blew me away when I read the book,” Simons-Oparah said.

The collection is unfinished, Jones said.

He has already painted scenes from more than 100 Confederate bills. Sixty will be displayed at the library, next to reproductions of the bills. He will paint more as he acquires them.

”I hope that it will give people a sense of enlightenment and African Americans a sense of empowerment,” Jones said.

Originally posted 2004-02-08