AWA NEWS

The Latest from American Women Artists

Carrie Waller Abundance

By Jann Haynes Gilmore, PhD, AWA Board Member

As it is often said, “politics is local”. The same can be said about artists who portray their surroundings and the people who inhabit them. Such is the case of Myrtle Jones (1913-2005) who recorded through her art the life in her adopted city, Savannah, Georgia.

Today, in addition to its antebellum ambience and distinguished literary and musical legacy (songwriter, Johnny Mercer), Savannah is home to the well-known Savannah College of Art and Design, established modestly in 1978 but now an accredited, private art school. By the early 2000s, SCAD enrolled more than 11,000 students in practically every creative discipline. Uniquely located in a landmarked city, SCAD has worked closely with historic preservation organizations and now occupies 67 buildings within the historic district.

Myrtle Jones seated at her kitchen table, photograph, 1991. All Jones illustrations are from A Savannah Experience, Myrtle Jones, 1991. All artworks are in private collections.

Myrtle Jones, known affectionately as “Miss Myrtle” came to enjoy this unique and lively artistic atmosphere when she adopted Savannah as her home. She was born in northeast Georgia in a small town called Winder.  She and her siblings lost both parents in the early 1920s and as a consequence, Jones lived with several foster home families and in one of them, a loving caregiver bought her paints and a book on watercolor. In 1928 at age 15 she was misdiagnosed and sent to a TB sanatorium in Alto, Georgia.  There she had her first real experience with art when an artist who introduced her to drawing.

Voted most talented in her high school, Myrtle was encouraged to attend Columbia University but World War II loomed and she was forced to take a business course and was hired by the US Army in Atlanta.  She had earlier visited her sister in the City of Savannah and had fallen in love with its charm and moved there after her first divorce.  She loved painting its buildings and occupants and also wisely began buying dilapidated historic houses. As she and her work became known, a friend who was teaching in France encouraged her to visit France and Spain.  Jones remembered in 1966 that “she was lost in the city for four days” and finally found a hotel through the Cook’s Tour Guide. She referred to the Louvre as the “French Impressionist museum” which she most wanted to see. After walking around the Latin Quarter for four days, she knew Paris well, writing “What a wonderful place to be lost in.”  With her friend she traveled south to Provence and Spain, enjoying the Prado and the great Goyas, impressed by his “dark period”. Myrtle later traveled with other art-minded friends whom she met in Savannah to Czechoslovakia and Prague as well as Philadelphia, Washington DC, and San Francisco.

Myrtle Jones in her studio working on painting of Old DeSoto Hotel, photograph, n.d.

With European art exposure Myrtle Jones returned to Savannah and began her serious art career while continuing to buy real estate.  She soon purchased 112 Gaston Street and two smaller houses on Tattnall Street. She occasionally bartered for carpentry and plumbing services in exchange for her artwork. She fondly recalled that she furnished her three-story house with older furniture found locally.  She turned the front parlor with its bay window into her studio and described her milieu: “In the early morning or late afternoon, sunlight filters through the windows and plays on the plant foliage creating a perfect backdrop. Sometimes I persuade a friend to sit on the couch and I paint with the feeling that one of Bonnard’s angels has come down and is painting with me.” One of Jones’s most notable sitters was Jim Williams, the infamous main character in the enormously popular 1997 book about Savannah written by John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Williams kept answering his phone while posing for Jones and she left, telling him she was not painting him. 1

The Card Players, Myrtle Jones, casein, c. 1954.

Jones called herself “self-taught” but she studied art during brief periods with Emil Holzhauer, an early expressionist artist who used intense colors; several art professors from the University of Georgia; and Bill Hendrix from St. Simons, Georgia.  As she entered the Savannah art scene she became friends with another artist, the older Hattie Saussy (1890-1978) and they began to give each other criticisms.  Saussy had received more formal art training in New York and traveled more in Europe but both women artists were influenced by the French Impressionists, while applying their distinct individual styles (Saussy remained a realist artist) and often painted similar subject matter.  With plentiful artistic outlets, the women became involved with the Association of Georgia Artists, the Savannah Art Association, the annual Arts Festivals in the city, and the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded in 1886 by a woman. Telfair is acknowledged as the first public art museum in the southern United States.  Jones was given solo exhibitions at the Telfair Academy in 1962-1964, in 1976 and later.

An interesting side story to Jones’s art career is little known.  Vincent Price, Hollywood’s horror villain actor, joined Sears, Roebuck Company in an attempt to put good, original art in the hands of the American public. In 1962 Sears offered original works of art for sale in its retail settings and hired Vincent Price to collect paintings for its stores. In the beginning famous artists’ works such as O’Keeffe and Picasso were included. Gradually group shows were curated that traveled to smaller Sears venues which offered their population the closest thing to an art museum. This program ended in 1971 but Myrtle Jones’s artwork was featured and sold through the company in the mid-1960s. 2

To this author, Myrtle Jones’s best artwork represents optimism through her facility to capture light and her distinct, subdued watercolor palette that often conjures up the freshness of springtime, so appropriate for April.  Her work also features a strong structural composition as observed in her hundreds of ink drawings of Savannah streetscapes.   In her oeuvre Jones managed to move easily among watercolor, oil, and acrylics which were enhanced by her color choices, strong brushwork, and attention to narration. She once remarked that she dreamed in color. One can imagine Jones painting Forrest Gump sitting on that iconic Forsythe Park bench.  Her Fauvist-like works also reveal her assured handling of abstraction and her definite leanings toward modernism. Fellow artist Hattie Saussy best described Jones’s work “a result of inner compulsion and stirred life.” 3

On River Street, Savannah, Georgia, watercolor, c. 1954.

Shrimp Boats, Thunderbolt, Georgia, watercolor,  c. 1954.

Myrtle Jones took her first art class at the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences and at her death she posthumously donated her artwork along with a million-dollar endowment to the museum. 4  Hopefully the Telfair Museums will mount another exhibition of her work, especially as legacy southern women artists, especially those associated with a distinct place, are being re-evaluated for their importance. 5

Endnotes:

  1. “ Grande Dame of city’s art community a friend to all: Miss Myrtle remembered fondly after her death….”, Savannah Morning News, Friday, February 18, 2005.
  2. Many articles are available about Price’s “Least Famous Role” but he was a collector, gallerist, and studied at Yale University. I recommend this source:  Sears and Fine Art: Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art, http://www.searsarchives.com.
  3. One monograph exists with illustrations on the life and art of Myrtle Jones, published in 1995 as her memoir. I am privileged to own a signed copy of A Savannah Experience, An artistic expression of my life in Savannah, Myrtle Jones, M.J. King Publisher, Savannah, Georgia.  It is serendipity that Myrtle chose to tell her story.
  4. m.wikpedia.org, Myrtle Jones, cites Hersh, Allison, “Myrtle Jones: A Tribute,” Savannah Now, April 18, 2016.
  5. Telephone interview, Jann Haynes Gilmore with Elyse D. Gerstenecker, Curator of Decorative Arts, Telfair Museums, Savannah, Georgia, March 6, 2024.

*Myrtle Jones is neither cited in the 1996 seminal book: The American Scene and the South, Georgia Museum of Art, nor in a more recent book, Southern Modern: Rediscovering Southern Art from the First Half of the Twentieth Century, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2023. Her papers are housed at the Savannah College of Art and Design.