Woman in the Man
The many gifts of Jeffrey Catherine Jones
It was late in the Summer of ’77 on 45th and 9th and we were all heading down to The Studio for a First Friday party held by its four proprietor artists, Berni Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael W. Kaluta and Jeff Jones. It was family time for the comics community. The Studio was home to some of our more notable own, who produced an abundance of the adhesive that kept the family together in the 1970′s.
Gatherings at The Studio were an event unto themselves. The creative energies throbbing in this Chelsea loft were unmatched at any other gatherings or conventions. The work on display was arguably of the more prolific and inspiring to have emerged from the comics medium of its time. It was a little to the side of comics books, actually. Portfolios, prints, illustrations and paintings, along with the little actual comics work produced there, adorned the four distinct spaces derived from the divergent souls of the artists who occupied them.
Entering The Studio on this occasion, a giant painting rested on an elevated stand and dominated the near schizoid decor. By comparison to most of the other art around it, Blind Narcissus, a captivating portrayal of woman with a far-away glance in a solemn setting of whithered trees, seemed to have been transplanted from another time and place into the comic book, fantasy and sci-fi theme of The Studio. Standing around the painting and discussing its significance were a few party comers trying to get a morsel or word about it from the artist. Jeff Jones listened intently to the talk but remained silent while absorbing it. At one point when talk about “what it means” was exhausted, someone turned to Jeff and said “Maybe the artist can shed some light on that.” After a deft pause that seemed like an eternity, Jeff swayed his head slightly, opened his eyes wider in semi-bewilderment and said, “I… I don’t know.”
Most striking about Jeff’s response at the time was that so many artists, and perhaps even his fellow studio mates, seemed to know exactly what their work was about. This was especially true for us, the group who worked at Continuity. Knowing the intent and meaning of your work was a fundamental principal without which it was impossible to get to work on a drawing…along with “nailing it down” to remove any ambiguity as to its form. There is something very “knowing” about the comic book art of that time, that remains with us today. Something succinctly knowledgeable about the artists and writers who work this medium, at least going by a prevalent attitude of creators whom the industry promotes. Jeff Jones’ revelation that he seemed to have little idea what his own work meant was like a breath of fresh air in the Chelsea loft of industry and renaissance. It brought the subconscious into direct contact with the sprawling void of an empty canvas, craving to be populated by colors that have nothing in particular to say, other than perhaps: “It just came out that way.”
The rare humility and acceptance of our human state demonstrated by Jeff Jones on that evening took an interesting turn for me some several months later, when I began realizing that I didn’t really know who I was and the meaning of my life anymore. The realization led to a search that took me away from the family of comics creators, to return some time later amidst bombastic speculation and rumor about having lost my mind and believing I was the second coming of Christ. Yes, the family of comics makers of the 70′s loved to tell good stories, but this one was of the more awkward ones because it seemed to herald an inevitable fall of a promising young talent who had left a minimal mark on the medium in the short time I’d worked in it. Add to this the charged religious insinuations relative to a mostly Judao-Christian culture, then the estrangement in my colleagues eyes in that era was somewhat understandable. Sometimes.
There were rare occasions where some seemed to enjoy the idea that someone would dare tread in this direction within the world of comics, but for the most part the overwhelming majority of responses were those of estrangement, sometimes mixed with a little contempt. So it was with a some trepidation that I joined friends on another excursion to a First Friday party at The Studio in the midst of this personal chaos. As I walked through the entrance, dressed a little more distinctly than before with a rugged corduroy vest and jacket, beneath an unattended bushy hair and beard, countless eyes delivered that look that I’d become used to. Knowing that rumors spread fast in the family, I was certainly prepared for it, but more pleasant surprises also made themselves present.
Inside, directly before me stood Jeff Jones and unlike most others, he looked at me and never took his eyes away, his hand placed on his chin and mouth in contemplation, trying to hide a radiant smile that seemed to want to burst into the lofty air, perhaps only held back by the disagreement of most other party comers, whose reactions were more akin to something being terribly wrong about this picture. Jeff Jones, with his subtle but supportive gesture, did not seem to share in this estrangement. He rather seemed to think it was at least amusing, which was a response I was much more comfortable with. Jeff Jones had thus placed himself aside of some of the petty discourse of that particular life juncture.
These were perhaps the most vivid memories of Jeff that I carried for the next couple of decades as I left America and settled in Israel. The return to the comics community via the The New Comic Book of Life website in 2003, began connecting me again to the industry, I soon learned that Jeffrey Catherine Jones had underwent a gender transformation that took her out of commission for a while, and was then in the early stages of recuperating and returning to some normalcy or acceptance as a producing artist. A sprawling website of her art allowed me to catch up a little on her more recent work and learn of what had befallen her… and also get to know the artist a little better through her personal writings. A couple of years ago, Catherine created a profile page on Facebook and began curating an unprecedented art exhibit and enlightening commentary that remains at peak activity, even in her passing, revealing what is one of the more gentle souls and talented artists whom our world has known.
Perhaps a more compelling aspect of Catherine’s art is embodied in the humility of “not knowing”. A sharp contrast to the bold-in-your-face-drama of an Adams-on-the-heels-of-Kirby era for comics and fantasy art. And though it was Frank Frazetta who enriched the medium with greater grace, it was Jeffery Catherine Jones who defined the difference between these dichotomous approaches. While one would choose to strike the viewer on the head with a sledge-hammer of melodrama, Catherine’s stated intent was that she wanted to draw the viewer into the image, instead of imposing it upon them. It was this quality that most reverberated in her “non-gestural” art, resolute with the most subtle gestures. Main figures are often turned away from the camera, and even when we could see their faces, there was little to see in the shadows, evoking a mesmerizing curiosity that couldn’t let the art go.
If her art was a test for our subconscious, then judging by the legion of Jeffrey Catherine Jones art lovers, it might be safe to say that Catherine succeeded in elevating the enjoyment of her work to a level of participation, much like when a written novel elevates the readers’ imagination of the verbal descriptions of imagery to a point of eliciting participation with the author in the storytelling process.
So, while getting smacked on the head with a sledge-hammer is apparently considered an exhilarating affair in today’s pop culture marketplace, there seems to be no denying the unique personal charge inherent in the altogether opposite approach of viewing the art as a whisper that draws us into the myriad stories it conceals. A look back at art and history might reveal that a majority of the work that has been preserved and survived, which would most naturally be the most esteemed, belongs more to the passive and suggestive approach, as Catherine’s art does. Art that places its trust in the viewer’s curiosity of itself. A curiosity that fills the gaps of the story, that eventually comes to hold a more memorable place in the heart and more elevated cultural place in our collective consciousness. If this quality is at all an indication of long term trends, then we may well be on the cusp of the rise of Jeffrey Catherine Jones’ work to one of the more cherished and well regarded heights in art history.
This somewhat coy approach to art, where the artist taunts the viewer with a vagueness that elicits a mysterious affinity, would alone mostly place Catherine on the effeminate side of the gender map, in sharp contrast to the more macho sledge-hammerers-of-melodrama out to spoon-feed the viewer with everything we need to know about their art. Or even the many degrees in between. This was simply not Catherine’s desire as an artist, in the same way that she wasn’t comfortable asserting she understood the meaning of Blind Narcissus. If we are to stereotypically attribute an assertion of “knowing” to a sometimes snug male-of-the-species whom we can be, then this very opposite state of “not knowing” would perhaps be best said to have a home in the female subconscious. Maybe more than others, this issue of the essential function of the art and interaction with the viewers, seemed to provide an opportunity for expression to Catherine’s strong feelings, since childhood, that she was more of a woman than a man.
The transformation of Jeff Jones to Jeffrey Catherine Jones was not, however, like any other gender transformation we’ve known. In most such cases, men who make this change do so at an earlier age, usually driven by a sexual attraction to other men, which seems reasonable when a man connects strongly to the woman within them, allowing the feminine side to take over. But in the case of Jeff Jones, there seemed to have been no such signs of sexual attraction being behind the change. Just the opposite, Catherine continued to be attracted to women and shared the latter years of her life with a woman partner. The personality, insight and conviction that comes through her art and writings were delivered through mature female eyes. While the woman’s form remained a central subject of her work, there was rarely any sexuality to it. Sensuous to incomparable melt, definitely. But certainly far from expressing overt sexuality. It’s as if viewers are transported to another innocent time, when we were naked but not ashamed, maybe because our sexuality was still in its infancy..or perhaps even yet non-existent.
Comments on her work have lauded the dignity with which she’s portrayed the female form, and some have suggested that Catherine’s art aspires to purge womanhood of the charge of sexual manipulation that some elements of society brashly place on them. In some of her writings, she delivered insights into the female soul as the carrier of life whose utmost concern is to nurture the newborn and prepare them for independence. These reveal a genuine affinity to the woman who resides in every man, and not merely an issue of sexual attraction or preference. Looking at the full range of work left by Catherine, perhaps her biggest contribution, as an artist and man-woman, is opening a door for all of us to recognize the presence of both genders within ourselves.
More revealing is that Catherine had never truly entirely shed her male trappings in favor of womanhood. Just the opposite comes through the many comments and discussions on her Facebook page over the last year or so. She was happy carrying her former male name and often expressed herself with an assertiveness that’s more identified as being “manly” by comparison. As if to say that she had also arrived at a peace with the man residing within her.
In becoming re-acquainted with Jeffrey Catherine Jones over the last few years, I found myself identifying with her insights into the drawing process, which mostly seem to come from that place within us of “not knowing”. As a result, and in sharp contrast to the methodology I trained in as a comics artist, I found myself drawing with more initial uncertainty and allowing the art to try to “create itself”, so to speak. It’s wasn’t an altogether new experience for me as I’d come to such states sometimes, while being disengaged from the comics world. But there is something about the expectancies of the comics medium that makes such an approach difficult, which perhaps best defines the difference between commercial and fine art in our time. The latter being a more independent and unprescribed approach, free of the shackles of market demands. In hindsight of the struggle I’ve had between these over the years. and in looking back at Catherine’s career, it’s truly a wonder that an artist has remained so much a part of the comics industry while maintaining a truly independent course as an artist. There simply aren’t any examples where Catherine compromised her artistic integrity in the face of commercialization and pop culture trends. Jeffrey Catherine Jones rather chose to set her own trend and allow the chips to fall where they may.
Another aspect of her activity on Facebook are the conversations that come in the comments to art and photos that Catherine posted on her page. She had a genuine child-like curiosity for the simplest things and often brought examples of outside issues that amused her. There were some political, religious and even science oriented offerings that started interesting banter on her posts, where I found myself commenting there on a wide range of things from spirituality to new science discoveries. Throughout the discourse, in which I’m known to become a little wordy at times, I found in Catherine a pure and unattached woman who wasn’t necessarily crazy about taking sides in any fervent debate. Her way was to find a common ground and a bridge. On one occasion, when we discussed Big Bang theory relative to Steady State, she responded to the differences I pointed out between the two with: “well, can’t the two theories be compatible after all?”. And this wasn’t coming from someone who doesn’t understand the sciences, which she was clearly fluent in and understood theoretical ramifications. More than anything, she seemed to understand the fluidity of our sum knowledge and how precarious it is to assert a conclusion on issues we can yet barely understand.
Jeffrey Catherine Jones was not a fighter in the classical sense of the word. She did not like conflict. She rather chose to find expression to the harmony and grace that she felt within herself. She was not driven by a haughtiness about herself or an ego inflated by her artistic wizardry, but rather understood her existence as part of greater and more comprehensive whole. Her art is a record and testimony of her coming to grips with the more complete being that she was. Her allure is in that same inner peace that allowed her to transform herself in mid-life and widen her personal horizons.
It is way too early to attempt to define the legacy of Jeffrey Catherine Jones on the day after her passing. It will take some time to digest her illustrious career and life and the profound impact she’s had on the comics community and the world. It is possible, however, to have a sense of the enormous scope of her presence and the sudden tragic emptiness at her departure.
Catherine’s death is not merely the passing on of an accomplished artist. It is also a window through which we can look at ourselves more candidly and try to earn a small fraction of the serenity she bestowed upon us.
Godspeed, good lady.