As part of the dynamic arts community that flourished in Chicago’s South Side during the 1930s and 1940s, Fred Jones sought to depict the African American experience through his paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Unlike his peers, however, Jones chose to portray the black struggle in imagery that synthesized romanticism, mythology, religious symbolism, surrealism, and African abstraction to create wholly original, poetic commentaries. “Painting is a simple thing,” he said in 1988. “You make a simple statement. You tell the truth, really. Make it flamboyant and beautiful but tell the truth.”

Jones’s given name has been documented in various ways over the years. The most consistent iteration, Frederick Douglas Jones Jr., aligns with his paternal lineage. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, he was the son of Frederick Douglas Jones, a pharmacist and alumnus of Shaw University, and his wife Lula. For most of Fred’s early years, the family lived in Georgetown, South Carolina, where he took up drawing. “It intrigued me,” Jones recalled, “and I got hooked.” In the 1920s, the Joneses relocated to Atlanta. While a student at Booker T. Washington High School, he met noted professor Hale Woodruff during a visit to Morehouse College. Impressed by the aspiring artist’s promise, Woodruff mentored the teenager for several years before Jones enrolled at Clark University in 1934. Jones insisted that “meeting Hale Woodruff just really carried my world. He taught me and was sort of like a father.”

Clark University lacked a formal art program, though Jones was quickly recruited to serve as artist to the school magazine. After two years of classes, Jones took a full-time job at the Coca-Cola bottling plant. The chairman of the company’s board of directors was introduced to Jones’s art and, along with company president, assisted Jones in furthering his studies at the nearby Britt School of Art, then facilitated his transfer to the Chicago bottling site, and, most significantly, sponsored his matriculation at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1940. Jones remained employed with Coca-Cola for thirty-five years, retiring with a full pension in 1973. By that time, he was earning more money from art sales than from his salary.

Military service in the US Navy interrupted Jones’s time at the AIC. From 1943 to 1946, he worked as a pharmacist mate, an assignment that afforded him time to paint and introduced him to Dox Thrash, whose canvases share a sense of isolation with Jones’s. Following his discharge, Jones returned to Chicago and graduated from the AIC in 1947. That same year, he was hired as the assistant director of the South Side Community Art Center, the WPA hub for creative activity in the largely African American neighborhood. His tenure there—as student, employee (working with director Rex Goreleigh), and teacher—was seminal to Jones’s aesthetic maturation. “Everybody was learning from everybody,” Jones said of a roster which included Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Charles Sebree, and Charles White, from whom he learned to paint with “strength.”

Throughout his career, Jones exhibited across the Midwest and was a particular favorite at local art fairs, especially Chicago’s annual Street Art Fair where he would sell scores of watercolors each year. His pictures often featured graceful black women set before bleak landscapes or within lonely interiors, settings populated with barren trees or sparse furnishings. The elegant, elongated necks and torsos of his female subjects reflected what Jones defined as an essential “blackness,” a sensibility and style rooted in memory that “just happens to” an artist of color. It was, Jones said, “your African mark.”