Frank Albert Jones, black artist, son of Edward Jones and Sarah Clark, was born at Clarksville, Texas, around 1900. He never attended school or learned to read or write, and was completely self-taught. He spent his early years in the Red River County area, where he supported himself working at odd jobs. When he was a small child his mother told him that he had been born with a veil over his left eye, and that this veil would enable him to see spirits. According to a widespread African-American folk belief, people born with the veil or caul (part of the fetal membrane) over their eyes have the power to see spirits and communicate with them. Those who have this power are sometimes referred to as "double-sighted." When Jones was about nine years old, he began to see spirits. He compared his double-sightedness to looking through a hole into the spirit world. Throughout his life he continued to see spirits, which he called "haints" or devils, in many disguises, including dogs, birds, clocks, and men and women of all nationalities. Though Jones's only generally known art is drawings done in prison during the last eight years of his life, he said he made his first "devil" drawing at the age of ten. Early drawings (circa 1930) have been found.
Jones spent some twenty years of his life in Texas prisons, beginning in 1941, when he was imprisoned on a rape charge that resulted from his having taken in an abandoned baby girl seven years earlier. Apparently, when the child's mother returned to claim her, Jones refused to surrender the child and was arrested for rape. After his release from the Red River County Jail, he married Audrey Culberson, a woman with two grown sons, and the couple lived in Clarksville. In 1949 an elderly Clarksville woman was found murdered, with robbery as the apparent motive. One of Frank Jones's stepsons was arrested, and he implicated Jones in the crime. Jones was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He served nine years of the sentence before being paroled. After two years of freedom he was accused of another rape, and in 1960 he was sent back to prison to complete his life sentence. He steadfastly maintained his innocence of the crimes for which he had been convicted.
In prison in Huntsville, sometime between 1960 and 1964, Jones began to salvage discarded paper and pencils and to draw pictures of the haints he saw as a result of his veil. He called his drawings "devil houses." Using the stubs of red and blue lead pencils thrown away by inmate bookkeepers, he sketched horizontal and vertical lines that formed architectural structures viewed in cross-section. The houses were divided into cell-like rooms surrounded by barbed-wire shapes that Jones called "devil's horns." The jagged horn shapes, in alternating red and blue colors, set up the internal rhythm of each drawing. The haint figures were confined and received protection inside the rooms of the houses. Jones depicted the grinning haints frontally and in profile, with fluttering wings. Fire spewed out of the mouths of some. Others had lightning bolts emanating from their bodies. Additional elements of Jones's drawings included dice, pinwheels, and starbursts. Often large clocks appear in the houses. As a young man in Clarksville Jones had feared the supposedly haunted clock tower. Years later, while he was in jail in Clarksville, his work duty required him to wind the four large clocks in that tower. During his last prison term (1961–69) a large clock faced the courtyard where he drew most of the work that he is known for today; more than half of these 500 drawings prominently feature clocks. After Jones was "discovered" in the Prison Art Show in 1964, the first thing he bought with his new wealth was a fine gold watch. Ironically, he could not tell time.
Jones's work belongs to a category of self-taught art known as visionary art, which represents the expression of a vision seen only by the artist. Jones named his drawings after the haints they contained; his titles include Flying Fish Devil House, People Eatin' Devil House, Hawaiian Humpty Dumpty Devil, and Creepin' Crawlin' Blue Devil Spider. At first Jones signed his work with his prison number, 114591; later, he learned to print his name, and began adding it to the drawings.
The Texas Department of Corrections (see PRISON SYSTEM) held its first annual inmate art show in 1964. A guard at the prison had entered one of Jones's drawings as a joke, for Jones and his art were a source of amusement around the prison. Murray Smither, then director of a Dallas art gallery, purchased Jones's drawing and took it back to Dallas. Subsequently the gallery, the Atelier Chapman Kelley, came to represent Jones, to provide him with better art supplies, and to enter his drawings in competitions.
Jones's drawings were shown at Art on Paper 1965, where he won a purchase award, and Art on Paper 1966, both at the Weatherspoon Gallery, University of North Carolina; at the Third Annual Missouri Valley Drawing Competition, Mulvane Art Center, Topeka, Kansas, 1967; at the Seventeenth Exhibition of Southwestern Prints and Drawings, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art), 1967, where he was a special award winner; at American Drawing 1968, Moore College of Art, Philadelphia; at XXIII American Drawing Biennial, Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1969; and at the Contemporary Drawings Show, Fort Worth Art Center, 1969. During the years he received recognition on the outside, Jones continued to show his work in the annual inmate art shows. After his death his work was included in Twentieth Century Folk Art at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, and in Symbols and Images, organized by the American Federation of Arts, both in 1970; in a solo show at the Mulvane Art Center in Topeka, Kansas, in 1974; in Rambling on My Mind: Black Folk Art of the Southwest, organized by the Museum of African-American Life and Culture in Dallas in 1987; and in Black History/Black Vision: The Visionary Image in Texas, organized by the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas at Austin, in 1989 (see JACK S. BLANTON MUSEUM OF ART.
Jones died in the prison hospital in Huntsville of cirrhosis of the liver on February 15, 1969. Earnings from his art paid for his burial in Clarksville.