Ed Jones – an artist whose canvas is his city
As soon as artist Ed Jones told me his address, I knew he lived in the “neighborhood.” It was right smack in the heart of the city’s largest black community, North Philadelphia – the place that fed his imagination and released his muse.
A chronicler of city life, he roamed it with his camera, capturing the people, the sounds, the corner stores and the corners, and the fading houses that epitomize a way of life. “I grew up around the corner,’ he told me later. “I just love North Philadelphia.”
Jones lives in one of those old brick buildings lining a busy main street in the neighborhood, sharing it with only a doctor’s office. I puffed my way up one, then another flight of stairs. At the top, the artist was waiting for me. “The elevator’s out,” he said. I looked at him incredulously, but wondered if I had missed it. “That’s what I tell people.”
As I sat catching my breath, classical music played from a radio station he had tuned in to.
Jones’ living quarters were a bit dark, capturing the mood of a painting that had sparked my interest in him. At auction last summer, I bought a watercolor he created as a 17-year-old at Simon Gratz High School in 1960. I called it my “dark and stormy night” painting because of the bleak grays and blacks and purples in its image of an old Victorian house. His sister Betty Porter came across my blog post on the web, emailed me and put me in touch with him.
He didn’t remember the painting, but said the image was one of the many Victorian homes in the neighborhood when he was growing up. “I always liked old Victorian houses,” he said, adding that North Philadelphia was “saturated” with them. “A lot have been torn down now around the neighborhood.”
He showed me a picture of another of his paintings that was sold at auction last year. I remembered that sale; there were two pieces that were a part of the collection of Philadelphia artist Earl Wilke. Both were dated 1979: an oil on canvas of a Philadelphia trolley car (sold for $550) and a watercolor of train lights ($110) with studies on the back.
“He found beauty in the struggle he saw in everyday life and became a ‘city artist,'” Porter said in her email.
“I’m strictly a Philadelphia painter,” as Jones described himself. “I paint all over Philadelphia.”
Through Porter, I received a slideshow of some of Jones’ more recent works and they were fantastic, many of them with bursts of color, all views of the city. He had handed them over to a frame shop and gallery to sell. You can see them in the slide show below.
Interspersed with his city sensibility, Jones said, are the vibes he gets from the jazz of the Duke. “Duke Ellington’s music always sounds like the city to me. He was an impressionist.”
Jones infused that influence in a large oil painting of a corner near Philadelphia’s Chinatown – a piece he interchangeably called “The Blues To Be There” and “12th and Arch.” The blues, he explained, don’t have to be sad. “There’s happy blues, too.”
Ed Jones was born on July 14, 1942, the third of nine children. He developed a love of art from his mother, a pianist who played at churches in the area, according to Porter. Jones recalled that music was always on in the house.
His earliest recollection of painting was the art homework he did for his classmates in elementary school. In junior and high schools, art teachers and other art officials recognized his budding talent as a watercolorist and encouraged him. The “dark and stormy night” piece – it was titled “Old House” on a label on the back – was entered in a Scholastic Arts Award program sponsored locally by Gimbels Department Store in 1960. His teacher was listed as Hilda Schoenwetter, who in my research was a landscape artist who at one time taught at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. “The best teacher anybody could have,” Jones remembered.
His artwork was entered in exhibits both inside and outside school, garnering many awards, he said. He got a boost of confidence when then-Mayor Richard Dilworth and his wife Ann saw one of his watercolors at an exhibit, bought it and invited him to their house for dinner.
All of this gave him the incentive to want to go to art school, which he did through a four-year scholarship at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The school had accepted and educated budding African American artists for decades, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the first who arrived around 1880, and Laura Wheeler Waring, who came three decades later.
Jones’ home was so close that he walked to classes at the Academy, where he was taught by someone he described as one his most favorite and toughest teachers – Hobson Pittman, a North Carolina-born artist who had taught at the academy since around 1948.
“He really never pulled any punches with students,” Jones said. “If he said he liked your work, you’d say ‘Wow.’ If he didn’t like your work, he’d say get that junk out of my room.”
“He’d put your work next to the great masters and show you what you did wrong. He really made you look. When I was in art school, I looked at all the masters. It’s like a music student, you look at Beethoven and Bach, and you listen to their works to learn how to improve.”
His art education was interrupted after three years when he was drafted into the Army, where he spent 1964-1966 in the states rather than fighting in Vietnam. He continued his art, he said, recalling that he painted a mural for a mess hall and sold some works to Army officers.
After leaving the military, Jones shared a studio with several of his classmates from the Academy, paying less than $20 a month in rent. Now, the spot has a condo building: “It’s like looking at an old frontier picture,” he said.
Jones says he tries to paint every day in his studio on the second floor of his house, a room with broad bright windows that give him a roof-top view of North Philadelphia and a top-level view of the city’s skyscrapers. He paints from the pictures he takes with his camera, his dreams, his memories. He has some unfinished projects in the studio, including several works designed with heavy packing material and another with old computer circuit boards.
He’s never lived solely off his paintings and always had a job on the side, retiring about 12 years ago. At one point, he said, he worked for a machine shop doing blueprints. I was reminded of the Palmer Hayden painting “The Janitor Who Paints,” which I showed to Jones on my Droid. He said that sales of his works have been sporadic.
Since the 1950s, Jones has exhibited at Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia Art Alliance, Gimbel’s Department Store, Hahn Gallery, Mitch Wagner Gallery and Lorraine Nixon Gallery, according to Porter.
Watch a video interview of Ed Jones.
Click on the first picture to view the slideshow.