In the Devil House
A summer day, a dirt road, heat thick as steam from a boiling pot. Along the shoulder are verdant trees, shadows, the hum and croak and whistle and buzz of the woods. This is Clarksville, Texas, 1910. And here is Frank Jones, who will one day, decades from now, years after his death, be among the most recognized African-American self-taught artists.
He is nine years old today, a skinny boy walking quickly in front of a plume of his own kicked-up dust. He is heading for the cotton fields where he will work. He is always on time. He considers himself lucky to be seasonally employed by a local white farmer.
Frank gets these feelings sometimes, feelings he cannot put into words, feelings he would never talk about even if he could. They are like a cold breeze whispering up his spine, entering his mind, tickling on the inner curves of his skull. When they come he knows some force from the spirit world is near, a hole is opening up. Ever since he can remember, his aunt, who has raised him, has told him he is special, born with a “caul,” a transparent flap of fetal membrane over his left eye. Everyone in his African-American community knows this means he will be able to see into the spirit realm. He is gifted and cursed. He believes this is why his momma and daddy left him. They were afraid of the trouble his power could bring.
A sound from the woods, like his name on the wind. He looks, squints. Bird song, a breeze. In the shadows, in the tree trunks, as his spine hums, as his skin prickles and the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, he sees the suggestion of his first apparitions, camouflaged but definitely there, a part of the natural scene rather than distinct from it, shape shifting in the play of speckled light, smiling and chattering, calling him toward their world.
Eyes wide, he takes off sprinting for the work fields—huffing, arms swinging—his kicked-up dust chasing him like a beige ghost.
It began as a lark, his late-life drawing. In 1961, old Frank was just another black man among the mostly black and Hispanic men in Huntsville Prison, or the “Walls Unit.” The prison was the first built in Texas, in 1848, and it was the only prison in the South still functioning at the end of the Civil War, when violence and lawlessness were beyond control in the aftermath of four years of carnage and the slaughter of 650,000 Americans, including, by best counts, over 50,000 civilians. Frank was here on a rape charge after already having been in and out of Red River County Jail on rape, murder, and burglary convictions. He started collecting scrap paper from the guys who emptied administrators’ wastebaskets. A guard offered him a couple of discarded red and blue pencils, once used for bookkeeping. “Go on and draw them devils you always talkin’ ’bout, Frank,” said the guard. “I reckon I might,” said Frank.
Sweating in the south Texas heat, a throbbing fear in his chest, I imagine Jones put the crumpled, off-white paper up against the wall of his small, concrete cell. Using the pencil nubs, he started by making horizontal and vertical lines, creating symmetrical boxes, like a child’s game of tic-tac-toe, which he thought of as rooms in his “devil house.” The lines were then decorated with elaborate barbed-wire-like spikes or claws. Inside each room—each cell—was a smiling demon with horns and wings, sometimes breathing fire. Some looked like happy cartoon birds. Others snarled. He gave form to the “haints”—a Southern colloquialism for a spirit or lost soul—he had seen walking around in the world since he was nine.
He had no plan, no real artistic intent. That’s not how this works. This kind of art—visionary art—is more like a ball of fire stuck in the body that finally bursts forth out of the mouth and eyes. He represented, as best he could and with the materials at hand, the spirits who had tormented him, drawn him in, tricked him. During the last eight years of his life, after he had spent nearly a quarter century in Texas jails and prisons, and before he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1969 at age 70, Jones exorcised his demons by drawing them, by taking them out of his confused mind and jailing them on paper. They had menaced him throughout his miserable existence. They had made him do such shameful things. For the first time in his life—as a poor black man in the South, as most likely a paranoid schizophrenic, as a man who may not have been guilty of some or all of the crimes for which he was convicted (we’ll never know)—he held some small power over his circumstances. His aunt had told him he would be powerful. But he had felt so weak throughout his life, so at the mercy of his demons and the laws and codes of a white man’s world. His cell was within walking distance, if you could make the steel and concrete vanish, of the infamous Texas execution chamber, and every time the state took a man’s life another haint was born. Inmates suffered, then died, then they came back to make others suffer. A circle of suffering. Only Frank could see it. His curse. He kept drawing.
He was born in 1900 to Edward Jones and Sarah Clark. Like all blacks in Clarksville, Texas, he descended from slaves who had been brought west from other parts of the South as free labor in the fields. His father left first. His mother then left him with his aunt when he was a baby. This was not uncommon and often necessary for survival. Throughout slavery infants were taken away when their mothers were sent back to work, sometimes never seeing each other again. Husbands and wives were separated. So were brothers and sisters. The old who could teach the young disappeared, the young then cut off from their history, their genealogy, any sturdy sense of community or identity. An African-American child might ask this common question: Who am I? The institution of slavery—a crime against humanity as big as any—answered: You are who I say you are and nothing more; you are a commodity, a working machine or a burden to your society, a thing made to aid in the life of a white man or woman. And later, after slavery (Abraham Lincoln was kept off the Presidential ballot and thus received, even with the potential for write-in, 0 votes in Texas in 1860), in the South and the larger U.S., blacks were seen as less than fully human, unworthy of an education or a trade; unable, most often, to achieve any modicum of economic security or accumulate wealth or property to pass on from generation to generation, assuming societal realities hadn’t already dismantled or destroyed the family (which they most often had). Just as whites had taken the land from Native Americans, a white Texan of means and connections could easily have a family of blacks removed from a fertile field or sloping hillside with a paper that said it was fully legal for him to do so. White police officers could lynch blacks suspected of crimes without these deaths being seen as murder, or even unjustified. Killing a black man in east Texas in the early 20th century was barely more extreme than killing a dog that kept bothering the livestock. As a boy, Frank understood, from the stories and songs he heard in the fields, from his aunt’s teachings, that the law was used as a weapon against black people. The real story of America has always been the one about power and privilege—who has it, who doesn’t. Whites could only trespass on whites. Blacks were always trespassing. Every step Frank took was a trespass. His family and community had been granted freedom from slavery, but only freedom, which was like being rescued from a sinking raft to be stuck on a bare, cold rock in the middle of the ocean. How would your mind hold up?
As a child, he would have lived in a shack, probably with many other people related to him or to each other. He never went to school, never learned to read or write or tell time by the clock, though he understood, better than you or I, the cycles of the sun, the seasons, the weather. And he was touched. Everyone said so. They talked about it all the time. He had no choice but to believe it.
Frantz Fanon ends The Wretched of the Earth with a series of “case studies” about the ways in which racially and ethnically oppressed people go mad within an incoherent social system that defines them unceasingly as other, stigmatized, lesser, and inherently criminal. R. D. Laing, in the 60s, suggested severe mental illness was not an unreasonable response to the distortions and abnormalities of our world. Jean Dubuffet, in the “raw expression” of art brut, later termed outsider art by Roger Cardinal in 1972, saw a kind of psychological resistance to this distorted world—a re-distorting, if you will, through art, of largely unquestioned and dehumanizing social and cultural situations.
No one ever forgot about Frank’s power, his curse, or the day he was born with the strange translucent bubble over one of his eyes. The people present at the birth knew that he was a newborn seeing them in this world with one eye and still seeing the spirits in the next world with the other eye.
A haint can be housed in anything, living or not. A white woman on the street looks at Frank and she has the face of a bird of prey. A man’s hat speaks to him with a gator’s mouth. Trees whisper. Porch lights are the eyes of demons. A stop sign in the wind dances a centuries-old curse. Birds squawk hidden messages from an underworld. He could not take it, this magical life. It was torture.
So he drank. When he was out of jail or prison, that is. He finally drank himself to death, which was not easy considering the last third of his life was spent mostly behind bars and forcibly sober. But when he drank he drank with gusto, drank for oblivion—rot gut, moonshine, anything, even poison, that had alcohol in it. He drank like a man who believed the haints could not live in a booze-soaked mind. He was drowning them. But as soon as he stopped drinking they came back. So he drank some more.
Drunk, he prowled the night. He went mad with the visions and voices, but then came back to quieter thoughts and emotions and found work. Madness, or magic—whatever you want to call it—was cyclical, or maybe pendulum-like, coming and going, coming and going. There was yessir this and yessir that for months at a time in the sultry fields during his teens, 20s, and 30s. He loaded munitions onto trucks for a few months before World War II. He married three times, each marriage less stable than the last. The government had secret messages for him. The devil could spread himself along the ground like morning dew.
His first arrest was for the rape of a seven-year-old girl in 1941. The facts seem to be: he had taken her in—or the house he lived in with other poor blacks had taken the girl in—when she was abandoned as a baby. Her mother came back to claim her. Frank wouldn’t let her go. The mother went to the police, said her girl was like Frank’s slave. Frank died swearing he was innocent of this crime. He never touched the girl that way, he said, which may have been true. The police said there was no doubt. He spent eight years in prison.
He got out, prowled the night again, drank toward suicide. His last marriage was to Audrey Culberson, who had two grown sons. One of Frank’s stepsons murdered an elderly woman in Clarksville during a robbery. Frank was implicated in the planning of the crime. He said he didn’t do it, but he was a drunk on a porch slurring his swears. He went back to jail for nine years.
Free for only two years after this sentence, he was accused of another rape, this time of a woman late at night in Clarksville. He again swore he was innocent, had never touched her, but he had no alibi and he was always out at night, drinking or looking for a drink, hearing voices, watching the devils as they disguised themselves as people, trees, machinery. He had a record, was known by the cops (many of whom were proud members of the KKK, not only in Texas but throughout the South), and was in the area. At that point, he was a walking suspect. It didn’t matter what the crime was—he was a suspect. And as he would later admit, the haints were always trying to get him to do evil things. And he couldn’t always remember his nights. Time vanished and he didn’t know where it might have gone. He entered the maximum security prison in Huntsville in 1960.
He was a docile old man in Huntsville. In photographs, he looks like Scatman Crothers in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Some thought he was a little “retarded,” screwed up in the head, damaged. Like a child really. A few didn’t think he’d ever raped or robbed or had anything to do with killing anybody. Just didn’t seem to have it in him. His drawings—“this here is a haint house, y’all”—were something of a joke among the guards and inmates. They all looked the same and he did over 500 of them! He couldn’t read or write so he signed them with his prison number: 114591. He drew and drew and drew, like a cloistered monk praying, putting his mind and fears on the page over and over and over. If he didn’t have his pencils, he’d be fidgety, beside himself, pacing. Haunted.
In July of 1964, when “rehabilitation” was a new word bandied about in penal policy, the Texas Department of Corrections held its first art show. A guard entered Frank’s drawings as a prank, but later said he did it to make him “feel good.” The work was judged by art faculty from nearby Sam Houston State, all of whom were aware of Jean Dubuffett’s idea of “art brut” and the “raw expression” of the mentally ill and socially marginalized. This was the 60s. Duchamp’s “ready-mades”—a urinal as a work of art, Alan Kaprow’s “happenings”—spontaneous performance art events in public spaces; minimalism. Anti-art—art that sought to destroy the oppressive, quasi-authoritative idea of fine art—was in the air. Needless to say, Frank won the show. Shortly after this, a collector and gallery owner named Murray Smither, of the Atelier Chapman Kelley Gallery in Dallas, began to visit Jones. Smither brought larger and better paper and finer blue and red pencils. He also began to purchase many of the most complex and accomplished drawings. Frank used the money to buy a gold watch. He couldn’t tell time, but he loved the look of a man in a fine gold watch.
In October of 1964, Smither’s gallery held a solo show of Jones’ work, which was the first visionary art exhibit to be held in Texas. It was covered by local and regional papers and Jones’ art began to be much more widely known. The story that he believed demons and devils followed him increased his notoriety, that he was a prisoner in one of the meanest institutions in the country did even more for what we might call his “cultural capital.”
In the following years, throughout the 1960s and early 70s, Jones’ drawings were exhibited in galleries and museums in Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kansas. “You’re a famous artist, Frank,” said the guard. “I reckon I am,” said Frank. His aunt had always told him he was special. Maybe he was after all. He loved his gold watch.
Smither became friends with Jones, a benefactor and social worker of sorts. He worked to get him paroled for years, the first several attempts denied. Finally, in late 1968, Jones was set to be released to Smither’s custody to live in Dallas and continue his drawings in a quiet studio. But Frank had spent too much of his life fighting demons with alcohol. I bet he never regretted his drinking; I bet he thought booze was one of the best things this cold world had to offer. In February of 1969, the week he was to become a free man, he died of liver disease in the infirmary of Huntsville Prison. His drawings now sell for thousands of dollars each. In March of 1969, his corpse was shipped back to Clarksville for burial. He had earned just enough as a visual artist in his lifetime to cover the funeral expenses.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.