Jeffrey Catherine Jones: A Life Lived Deeply

Jeffrey Catherine Jones (January 10, 1944-May 19, 2011), a troubled, transgendered painter, illustrator, and comics artist with a world-wide reputation, died from a combination of emphysema, bronchitis, and coronary artery disease on May 19th of this year. Jones had been in ill health for the last several years, and in the week preceding her death, had lain in coma with little hope for recovery or survival. (Note: the shifts in gender when referring to Jones are deliberate. After undergoing hormone replacement procedures in 1998, to become female at the age of 55, Jones changed his name to Jeffrey Catherine Jones and was thereafter referred to by the feminine gender. Prior to this time, Jones was physically male and will be referred to as “he” when discussing the earlier portions of her life.)

Jones enjoyed a unique position in the worlds of comics, fantasy art, and fine art, for her work encompassed all of those separate dominions at one time or another. Starting in the mid-'60s, Jones began contributing art to fanzines such as ERB-dom, Styx, Heritage, and Amra, mostly drawing muscular barbarians, swashbucklers, and lusciously beautiful women. After graduating from college in 1967 with a degree in geology, Jones and his then-wife Louise (nee Alexander, and currently married to the comics artist Walt Simonson) moved from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, to New York City so Jones could pursue an art career. Although Jones quickly found some work in the city, drawing comics pages for King Comics, Gold Key, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, as well as Wally Wood’s Witzend, and contributing cover art and interior illustrations to s-f pulps like Amazing and Fantastic, the chronically low rates he received made it tough for the young artist to support himself, his wife, and his daughter Julianna, born in 1967. Fittingly, Jones did the bulk of his Warren work, both covers and interior art, for Vampirella, perhaps drawn by the allure of that magazine’s exotic, blood-sucking protagonist, or possibly because of that title’s strong emphasis on sex and beautiful women, two topics of enduring fascination for Jones. “I am a romantic and a painter and I love women… The female form just reflects light so simply and beautifully,” he once said.

After releasing Spasm, an underground comic that he wrote and illustrated, and after taking on a handful of comic book art assignments for DC Comics in the early '70s, Jones eventually foreswore mainstream comics. He did however, write and draw the lushly illustrated black and white one-page strip Idyl for every issue of National Lampoon from January 1972 through August 1975. And in the early 1980s, Jones embarked on a new strip entitled I’m Age for Heavy Metal that was, if anything, even more obscure than his previous comic strip. Jones, of course, never bothered explaining his most abstruse strips, leaving his readers to puzzle over the meanings as they marveled at his ever-evolving draftsmanship. As Jones noted in a 2001 interview: “My general intent in both strips was to explore the difference between men and women. The only real difference between Idyl and I'm Age is that in the former men were generally represented by animals or objects, and in the latter, there were no males present. Idyl was intended as satire and whimsy. One art director and one editor, who met me each month with puzzled faces, continued to remind me that National Lampoon was a humor magazine, "As long as YOU laugh," they finally said. So each month I would go in laughing. I also must admit that I love to draw nude women.”

However, the artist’s early comics and fanzine work provided a showcase for a major emerging talent, and quickly led to a slew of commissions doing paperback book covers, as well as the cover and interior illustrations for Red Shadows, a collection of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, and in 1968, to painting the cover art to a previously unpublished Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, I Am a Barbarian. Red Shadows proved so popular it eventually went through three editions and helped establish Donald Grant as a major small-press publisher, encouraging others to follow in Grant’s footsteps with illustrated limited editions of classic fantasy and horror.

The mid-to-late 1960s was one of the golden eras of paperback illustration, with artists like Frank Frazetta, James Bama, and Robert McGinnis at the peak of their powers. Because of the popularity of his Conan covers, Frazetta’s work in particular was in high demand, so art directors were constantly on the lookout for artists who could paint in a Frazetta-esque style. Since young Jones was highly influenced by Frazetta’s work at the time, it wasn’t much of a stretch for the talented young southerner to create science fiction and fantasy paintings that echoed Frazetta’s style and characters, though usually rendered in Jones’ distinctive, dark-toned palette. It was because of this early work on genre paperback book covers that Jones, perhaps a trifle unfairly, acquired a reputation as a Frazetta clone, something he struggled to get out from under for years before finally throwing it off through the more ethereal and nuanced quality his later work achieved.

In reality, though, those early painted paperback covers demonstrate that Jones was amazingly versatile, tackling a broader range of subjects in his paintings than Frazetta, painting in genres as diverse as romance, humor, mainstream fiction, horror, even Westerns. It is fair to note, however, that the bulk of Jones’ early magazine and paperback covers consisted mostly of SF, fantasy, and horror subjects. Although occasionally underbid by his younger colleague for jobs, something that nettled Frazetta at times, he eventually acknowledged Jones’s artistic gifts and stylistic growth by referring to Jeffrey Jones as “the greatest living painter.”

While Jones was incredibly prolific early on (averaging a painting a week at his peak), and so painting dozens of book covers every year from 1968 until 1977, he eventually renounced commercial illustration, claiming, “It is my firm opinion that illustration is immoral.” He then ceased taking on jobs that he did only for the money and that he thoroughly despised, and began making his living almost solely from personal work that was published in portfolios and prints. The epitome of this moment was perhaps his work as part of "The Studio," a massive loft in New York City that he shared with Michael Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith and Bernie Wrightson. All four were attempting to break out of the work-for-hire life, to varying results. Only very occasionally after this did Jones take on illustration assignments such as Queens Walk in the Dust, which he deemed worthy of his prodigious talents. As Jones noted many years after giving up commercial art,

Years ago I had goals (to get to this or that place), and when I did I found that all I wanted to do was art. So I have given up goals. When I was young, my passion was art, eventually comic book and fantasy art. I've seen a lot of people lose their childhood passions, not only for art but for life--just getting squeezed. My passion was and is my art. However, there was a time when I became aware that I might be losing it. Having used my ability to draw to buy approval from my childhood peers, I entered the real world with my "cash" in my pocket. I wanted to be published so badly that in the beginning I took on a lot of work that I hated. Ah, but maybe a million people would see it and love me. I lived in fear. What happened? I found that the more I went to the drawing board or the easel to do work I hated, the less I wanted to go there. I was losing my joy, and I found eventually that my joy was more important than approval. I began to get "difficult to deal with" and began to lose jobs. I became determined to, well, not so much "have it my way," but to do work I loved. It's not so easy to pursue, or even know what your heart's desire may be.

Despite Jones’ absence from the worlds of comics and illustration, the short-lived trading card boom brought his work to the attention of comics fans and collectors when the now-defunct FPG card company put out two sets of Jeffrey Jones trading cards. The cards featured old work, and a large number of new paintings, many of them commissions for private collectors that otherwise would have gone unseen. These card sets and several art books that came out in ‘90s and early ‘00s, kept Jones’ work and reputation alive, even earning her new fans.

Jones’ determination to chart his own artistic destiny did not come easily or cheaply, and the artist often struggled, both with making a living and with increasingly thorny personal issues. It’s now known from the artist’s personal writings that he had felt conflicted about his gender since childhood, always feeling a greater affinity for the fair sex than for his own maleness. Having grown up as a product of the patriarchal 1950s, with a domineering war-hero father, Jones did not know how to cope with his yearning to be female, and felt ashamed. For years he tried to drown these feelings in alcohol, but, after much soul-searching, Jones realized that although he’d been born male, inside he was a woman. He began hormone replacement therapy in 1998, and set out upon a new phase of life as a woman, changing his name to Jeffrey Catherine Jones.

Yet even this transition did not bring peace to this gentle, troubled artist, for in 2001, she suffered a nervous breakdown, which led to the loss of her home and studio. However, she eventually recovered, and by 2004 began painting and drawing again. As Jones’ small army of fans and Facebook friends can attest, art continued to pour from her fingers almost to the very last: drawings, landscapes, sketches, paintings, studies, even photographs and poetry.

Jeffrey Catherine Jones passed away at 4 A.M. on May, 19th, surrounded by friends and loved ones. She is survived by her daughter Julianna and her wife Maryellen.

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Jeffrey’s friend and colleague George Pratt was kind enough to share some parting words about the much-beloved artist: “Jeff Jones was one of the most inspiring artists and teachers I've ever known. He opened doors to the larger world of art for me to such an extent that I could never repay the debt I owe him. I am honored to have called him friend. The world is a lesser place without Jeff's uniquely sensitive voice.”