When Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she could have been talking about Georgia-born artist Benjamin Jones.
Jones, 65, now lives on Tybee Island but is back in his hometown (shout-out to Cascade Heights) for two exhibitions — a 40-year retrospective titled Speaking at MOCA GA (through February 15) and a solo show of new work titled Salt Island at Whitespace (through January 25). Speaking features large- and small-scale drawings, collages, embellished journals and sculptures. Salt Island offers drawings that cover a range of emotions.
A survivor Jones is. He was molested as a child and nicknamed Sissy Boy. He cared for his mother when she had cancer and dealt with his own depression. Jones proves that we all have our own pain but says, “You’ve gotta learn to enjoy your own company.” Jones, an animal-loving, camera-and-computer-shy man, was about to become a veterinarian before he took an art class — just to relax. These tidbits and more came out in his conversation with ArtsATL.
ArtsATL: What message do you hope viewers will hear loud and clear through Speaking’s seven themes (suffering, mortality, creatures, loving, politics, religion and inspiration)?
Benjamin Jones: My work is social commentary. I hope they study, learn and bring forth positivity. We need a message of hope and peace instead of war, lies, prejudice and hate. Hopefully someone will take something from these and change a little bit.
ArtsATL: What caused the shift from the whimsical and distressing depictions in your earlier work to the sense of peacefulness in Salt Island?
Jones: I wanted a new chapter in my life. Mother was the last of the family. I wanted to go to a place where I could just be. And [Tybee Island] allows me to release all that. I wanted my art to have more nature and animals, to be more peaceful, a lot more colorful, not as mean. Tybee’s an island of broken toys, unwanted toys. I fit right in. I’m the only male working at the only grocery store on the island. It’s great ’cause I meet all the old crazy cat ladies. It’s just this real funky place. The reason I took the job was to know my community more. The goodness is coming into the art. And that’s where I’d like to stay.
ArtsATL: What influenced you to become an artist?
Jones: As a child, I remember my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Summer. During our art time, she’d play classical music. She’d give us a sheet of paper and crayons and say, “Draw to the music.” Plus, I had a Barbie from Santa when I was six years old. I loved that because I got to play Ken with all my girlfriends, but by myself, I was Barbie and Ken. When I realized it was time to give up the dolls, I got some of my mother’s old jewelry and decorated a makeshift casket. I had a funeral service (just me) and buried them in the backyard. Ken and Barbie wrapped like mummies but beautifully decorated! Door decorations at school? I always won. Valentine boxes? Mine were the best ever.
ArtsATL: What did you fear most as a child? What’s your biggest insecurity now?
Jones: Gosh, I’ve never even thought about that. I learned at an early age that I was different. At school I was picked on. So, probably my biggest fear was loss. I didn’t want anything to harm my pets. They were my friends. My biggest fear now? Alligators. I appreciate them being leftovers from the prehistoric days, but I want them waaaay over there. Insecurities? I’m past that age.
ArtsATL: What inspires you to keep creating after more than four decades as an artist?
Jones: It’s oxygen. It’s my blood. I have to create, or I’m just not right. I’ve never been good at relationships and stuff like that. You can have boyfriends and girlfriends, but I’m making art. I’ve got my cat, Gray Boy, and I’ve got No. 2 pencils. What more do I need?
ArtsATL: Why are creatures and animals often so central to your work?
Jones: Art’s always been about discovery, and animals just always pop up. They can be peaceful. But then I’ve also talked about slaughterhouses in my work. You have to hit both sides of an issue. It just can’t be all sunshine, lollipops and unicorns.
ArtsATL: As an observer of current events, someone who journals and collects things, what are some of the strangest pieces of ephemera you’ve come across?
Jones: I have 40 years’ worth of journals, and I make my own books as well. I put my drawings in there, some language from a newspaper that I love. They’re beautiful books. Journals are a very private part of an artist. I brought my teddy bear that Mother won for me when I was seven. She won it shooting hoops. All these years, I’ve collected stuff. When I travel, I always walk with my head down to the street. I’ll pick up anything, but I collect animal imagery. I even have an alligator cocktail stirrer. I just went to Richards Variety Store. They had two little cat figures. I decided, “Oh, you need to come home with me.” It’s like I’m rescuing them.
ArtsATL: Since you want people to “feel the rage and to fight injustice in today’s crazy world,” if you could stand atop the highest mountain, what would you scream?
Jones: Wake up! Look what our beloved country is turning into! There are millions of us who just can’t believe what’s happening. Rally against that. We’ve gotta fight, scream and yell. We’ve gotta vote. You just can’t sit back quietly.
ArtsATL: After taking care of your mother, what surprises you about life’s meaning?
Jones: When I went into it, I was like, “I can do this.” Oh, my God. Bathing and changing my mother who had brain cancer. You put your life on hold 24/7 for someone else. I didn’t know how strong I was. Yeah, I’ve discovered I’m strong.
ArtsATL: What have your own health challenges meant to you and your art?
Jones: After Mother passed, I stayed in the house for a year staring at two shotguns. Then I had a heart attack. Depression set in. I got help. After four years, I came out of that dark cave. I use those self-help tools today. So, it freed me. The past is the past. It’s today. I’m in the now. Just be in the moment and be positive. I think that’s the key to accepting your life.