Protests in Acrylic

Following the money led South Carolina artist John W. Jones, a descendant of slaves, to see art where he least expected it — the currency of the Old South.

He has spent the past decade dramatizing a long-forgotten fact: Slaves picking, baling and transporting cotton were depicted routinely on Confederate bills.

By transferring these monetary vignettes onto canvas, Mr. Jones aims to show how human bondage fueled the economy of the Confederacy and to discredit the idea that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights alone.

Fascinating more for their didacticism than their artistry, his acrylic paintings have traveled to museums and colleges around the country since 2001. Fifty of them are being displayed in a venue that seems tailor-made for the exhibit — the former Bank of Petersburg, Va., which issued a few of the Confederate bills in the show.

The antebellum Greek Revival building has become home to the Siege Museum, which documents the 10-month assault on Petersburg by the Union Army during the Civil War. Nearly every nook and cranny of the museum, including the balcony around its domed rotunda, has been filled with the slave paintings and the money that inspired them.

The “Color of Money” series was begun in 1996, when Mr. Jones was working for a blueprint company in Charleston, S.C., and was asked to enlarge a $10 Confederate bill for a customer. While scanning the 1853 note, he was struck by the vignette in the right-hand corner. The tiny, detailed image showed slaves picking cotton.

“It blew me away,” the 55-year-old artist said during a tour at the museum last week before speaking at a conference on blacks and the Civil War in Petersburg. “I’d seen Confederate money before, but I had never paid attention to what was on it until that day. I had never seen this in history books.”

Intrigued by what he saw, Mr. Jones took out his brushes and paints to reproduce the faded, monochromatic engraving in bright colors at a larger scale. “I wanted to re-create the scene exactly as it was shown and bring it back to life.”

He then proceeded to research Confederate currency and buy it from Internet sites, antiques shops and flea markets. Over the years, he amassed a collection of about 40 notes issued by states, banks, railroads and insurers in both Southern and Northern states.

Framed facsimiles of those bills and others are paired with his paintings to draw attention to the romanticized images of slaves that were used as monetary emblems along with historical scenes and pictures of national leaders.

A $10 bill issued by the Central Bank of Alabama, for example, features a portrait of George Washington in the right corner and slaves in the cotton fields on the left. Mr. Jones based one of his strongest paintings, “Slave Carrying Cotton,” on the note, focusing on a mannish female slave shouldering a basket brimming with the crop.
“She was the hardest working lady on Confederate money,” the artist says in explaining that the image appeared on bills issued by at least 21 institutions in states from Florida to Tennessee.

Images of slaves first appeared on paper money issued by a Georgia bank in 1820 but only became common after the 1850s. They outlasted the Civil War, persisting into the late 1880s, according to Mr. Jones.

Often Northern printers reworked agricultural scenes of white laborers into black slaves in producing currency for Southern bankers. In “Slave Picking Corn,” the artist shows how the engraving of a white farmer carrying a basket of corn on a $3 bill from the Citizens Bank of Washington, D.C., becomes a black slave hauling the same basket on a $50 bill issued by a Virginia bank.

Because bank notes, even locally produced ones, circulated nationally, the scenes of contented, sometimes smiling black fieldworkers helped propagate the message that slavery was positive and good for the nation.

The Petersburg exhibit portrays the involvement of slaves in nearly all aspects of the economy — picking cotton in the fields, hauling bales onto trains and steamboats, harvesting corn and sugar cane, working in a factory, cooking for white masters.

Mr. Jones renders the scenes in a folksy style that reflects his background as an illustrator and commercial artist. Dazzling turquoise skies, muscular bodies and grinning faces project an image of slavery more vivid and idyllic than shown on the money.

Though he tried to be as historically accurate as possible, Mr. Jones was forced to use his imagination when some of the figures on the Confederate bills remained too indistinct after being enlarged. He gave some of the slaves more personality with faces based on friends and relatives, and sneaked in an occasional look of disdain or defiance.

It takes the money to convey the meaning of the paintings, but most viewers will be hard-pressed to make the connection because the slavery scenes on the reproduced Confederate bills are so small and fuzzy. The exhibit could benefit from some magnifying glasses or bigger blowups of the old engravings to reveal the source material more clearly.

Even when money and art can be compared obviously, the conceit wears thin after a while. Instead of summoning up anger and discomfort, the paintings lull the viewer with their greeting-card-style realism. They don’t critique the bank notes’ images of slavery with scenes of hardship or struggle but merely recycle their message of profitable exploitation.

Mr. Jones admits many viewers have been confused by his bright, cheerful depictions of slaves, mistaking them as a tacit endorsement of past racial injustices. “A lot of people don’t understand,” says the artist, who supports the idea of government reparations to blacks for slavery. “I’ve even had the Sons of the Confederacy ask me to lecture.”

The real goal of the exhibit, he says, is to serve as a teaching tool and encourage a dialogue about race. “Kids need to understand all the struggles that got them to where they are today.”

That may be purpose enough.

Originally posted 2005-06-04