It's a little startling how quickly and vibrantly artist Jason Jones' work has permeated so many parts of Northwest Arkansas. He painted his first outdoor mural in 2014 -- a shyly smiling robot with a feathered friend in hand -- on the side of a building located in the "S" curve of Archibald Yell Boulevard in Fayetteville, and more followed in quick succession: the "Enjoy Local" mural right outside the Fayetteville Town Center, painted at the behest of the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotions Commission; a gigantic octopus mural on the side of a building on South Walton Boulevard in Bentonville; and a jackrabbit wearing a gas mask on the wall of 545 W. Center St. in Fayetteville as part of the "Green Candy" public art initiative.
Those are the larger-than-life representations of Jones' whimsical work, but there are plenty of other examples to be found. You can see his murals in a variety of different buildings on the University of Arkansas campus, including a rendering of Old Main in the Arkansas Union. Several Fayetteville elementary schools bear evidence of his colorful imagination on their walls. Utility boxes on the downtown Fayetteville square have been enlivened with his work. His privately commissioned murals can be found in homes all over the Northwest Arkansas area. And on one full wall of one of Fayetteville's oldest and most popular bars, Maxine's Tap Room, he painted a detailed scene of musicians and revelers with the bar's original owner, Maxine Miller, right at the center.
Through Others’ Eyes
“I find that most people have many motivations — this is true for Jason. There is the motivation to be creative. To do what you love. To do what you’re good at. His passion is always a motivation. To please his audience. To make a viable income. To have a successful business. Perfectionism (both a driving force and a handicap). To have fun. To model for our child (work ethic, creativity). To make a statement. To start a conversation. To make a space beautiful. To give to his community.” — Robin Caudle Jones
“When we launched Green Candy [public art project] it was crucial to us, and something we were very passionate about, to include local artists. When Jason submitted his proposal, he nailed it. He got the theme with all of these different layers in ways I had not even thought about. He is very down to earth and very kind, as well as being incredibly talented. Throughout the whole process, he kept us focused on the mission and on the point. He brought such a positive spirit and was a joy to work with.” — Molly Collier Rawn
“He’s an old school illustrator. He’s not someone who is trendy or superficial — he’s the real deal. When I see his art, it’s not just that it looks nice — I’m actually seeing someone who has taken the time to master something. What he’s doing reflects years of work. His warm images brighten our environment a lot — I turned the corner and unexpectedly saw his mural in Bentonville and smiled as soon as I saw it. It’s nice to see these pieces of his personality out in the community. ” — Chad Maupin
“Jason sees the value of art in our community. I think he’d agree that it’s a unique way to show the rest of the world who we are.” — Hannah Withers
"The lighting in that mural is my favorite," notes Hannah Withers, Maxine's Tap Room co-owner. "From anywhere in that bar, it looks like Maxine's signature is glowing like a gold neon sign. His shadowing and lighting in all of his paintings and murals is so brilliant and subtle."
The outside murals, in particular, have quickly grown into iconic representations of each city's burgeoning commitment to public art. It would be difficult to count how many photographs, professional and candid, feature one his murals in the background. But to hear Jones tell it, Northwest Arkansas almost missed out on having the wonders of his vivid imagery as its backdrop.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist, because I was in the creek all the time," says Jones, who grew up in tiny Woolsey, located between West Fork and Winslow.
"He had a friend, Jesse, whose mom worked at the university, and in one of these labs they had these huge fish tanks," says Jones' mother, Tyrene Jones. "They were getting rid of them, and they both brought one home."
"It was huge, around a 70-gallon tank," confirms Jones. "So I would catch fish and bring them back to the tank. Most people don't realize that there are some really local, bizarre, cool fish you can find in the wild -- some that you just couldn't imagine. There were these little catfish called madtoms. They only get six or seven inches long, and they're really cool looking. Sculpins are cool. And rainbow darters -- and all kinds of weird things."
Jones' efforts to bring a little bit of Arkansas wildlife inside sometimes backfired in comical ways.
"We lived in this kind of ranch-style house, and it had a hallway down the middle of it," remembers Jones. "My poor mom. I would put all of these crawfish in this tank, and they would crawl out on the tubes and be all hairy, coming down the hallway."
"Yes, I would hear those get out and start moving down the hallway," says Tyrene with a laugh.
"For some reason, they would always go to her bathroom," says Jones. "Maybe they sensed the water? I don't know.
"It was a great place to grow up. We had around 10 acres there. The White River came across our land and connected to Winn Creek. Then there was a big railroad bridge. So I could just basically go in any direction. I could just take off. Most people didn't care if you walked across their land."
Being outdoors was a happy respite from the classroom, where Jones says he struggled.
"I was extremely introverted as a kid, just painfully shy," he says. "And I was never great at academics. I read incredibly slowly, so academics were always kind of painful."
Jones says that it wasn't until he was in college that he realized that he likely had dyslexia, though he was never tested or diagnosed, perhaps because his hard work and determination masked the symptoms of the disorder.
"I didn't like being behind on things, so I would spend twice as much time on my homework," he says. "Even to this day I read twice as slowly as everyone else. But it wasn't until I graduated and went to college that I realized, 'I have a problem.' That's when I started to realize how far behind I was. But the good work ethic pulled me through. I don't think I even realized how hard I was working on stuff because I just kept to myself. I just assumed everyone was working that hard."
Art came easy
One area where success came to him almost effortlessly was art.
"I was 4 or 5 when I sat in front of my mom and dad and drew a portrait of them," says Jones. "They were sitting on the couch, watching TV. I showed it to my mom and, I mean, it's uncanny how much it looks like them, so she was kind of startled. My dad was watching TV, and he had his shirt hiked up. You could see his belly button. I got all the details just right. I think that's probably my first memory, just her reaction from that -- it was so positive."
Jones' mother acknowledges the shock of such a tiny child rendering such an accurate portrait.
"We still have that little picture," says Tyrene. "It's almost like he had our soul in it, it just looked so much like us. He [once] drew a portrait of him and his dad. I don't know how to explain it: It is just so real, with the clothes and the demeanor."
"My mom really took notice of my art, and she signed me up for a painting class," says Jones. "It was an older lady in our town, and I took private lessons with her for a couple of years. I think I was 14 when I did that. And it was twice a week, three hours long. My butt would hurt. But it was good -- I learned a lot, and I liked sitting there and focusing on the work."
Before long, his mother wasn't the only one taking notice of his special skill. When he was 14, the local video store owner hired Jones to paint the fence alongside the store.
"It was my first paying gig, I guess," says Jones with a smile. "I rode my bike down there because it was before I had my driver's license, and he traded me video games and movies, basically. I would go in, and he would pick out a VHS cassette -- one was 'Gone with the Wind' and one was 'Dracula' -- and I painted movie scenes on the fence." Soon he was painting mascot murals in the local school gyms, and when his mom opened a day care facility, he painted a mural on the play room wall.
"When I think back on that as a kid, it was probably kind of scary," says Jones. "Because, you know, you're really putting yourself out there in a public way. But it worked out fine. [The video store owner] was super pleased. [He] called the local news, and there was a little blurb on television about it."
Once high school graduation rolled around, Jones says he was pretty sure that he wanted to pursue a career in art. For his freshman year, he attended Westminster College -- a small, private college in Missouri -- because that's where his girlfriend decided to go. The work was grueling for Jones, who was combating his reading issues, but by putting in hours of study time each week, he earned mostly Bs (and As in his art classes). But when his relationship ended at the close of freshman year, he decided not to return to Westminster.
"We were very poor," says Jones. "My father passed away when I was 14. So it was just me and my mom, you know." Jones is the youngest of four siblings, and his three older sisters had moved out of the house at that point. "After my dad died, my mom had gotten laid off. At the time, she worked for Campbell Soup. So it was a struggle. That school was something like $16,000 a year, so I was taking out a lot of loans. My mom had remarried, but that ended up in divorce. My dad was a great guy, and, I think, she just thought everybody would be a great guy.
"Those were trying times, I guess."
Back to work
The brutal school year, coupled with his sadness about the end of his relationship, sent him spiraling into a depression that lasted about a year.
"So that year I just worked, basically," he says. "I just had to make money. This was when they were building I-49, and I was on a bridge crew. I started out right by my house. I just walked over there when they were building a big culvert, and I just said, 'Hey, can I have a job?'"
The answer was yes, and Jones embarked on a short road construction career that was physically and mentally draining.
"It was really, really hard work," he says. "I can't tell you how many people quit the same day they were hired. It was like $7.50 an hour, which was a lot at the time. I probably would have had to work for minimum wage in another job. But $7.50 was just not worth it. When I was working in Mountainburg and Van Buren, I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. and work 10-hour days, six days a week. There was an ex-con guy who didn't have a driver's license, so they asked me to pick him up, and then we would have to drive all the way to work. It would take over an hour to get there, and then you would work these crazy long days. It was the hardest work I had ever done. The first day, I had to pull over and throw up -- the heat and exhaustion were just brutal."
He would parlay his construction experience into a job with the city of West Fork, a job he would keep during the summers when he went back to school at the University of Arkansas. Jones says it was about two years after graduating with his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree that he started making enough money as an artist to support himself.
"With art, you have to hustle really hard with it if you're going to make a living," he says. "And I hustle really hard. And I live off of it, but I don't make a ton of money off it. If you're going to be an artist, and you don't have money already, I don't think there's another way you can do it without really working hard."
Jones has worked hard as an artist for nearly 20 years now. When he has a mural project, he works 10-hour days and 60-hour weeks, similar to his old construction schedule. In 2013, he and his wife, Robin Caudle Jones, and her brother, Keith Caudle, opened Four Legged Bird, a store selling locally created handmade art. The store was open for around two years and was a real boon to the local artist community; Jones says they had products from more than 50 artists or crafters in stock.
"The store meant a great deal to local artists," says Big Bot Design's Chad Maupin, who says that having his art featured in the store helped further his career. "There was nothing else here at the time that sold that sort of art -- it was the type of store you might see in Portland or Seattle, with really funky, unusual things in it. They did a really good job of curating it, and a good job of understanding relationships with artists. It was a communal place, where you could play around and experiment with your work, and it catered to a culture that isn't normally recognized in small towns. I wish it were still there."
In addition to his murals, Jones has built up a cult following for his thrift store paintings. Jones buys those mass produced, generic paintings that can be found in droves at any random thrift store and carefully adds an unexpected tweak that gives the painting a quirky new meaning: Sasquatch contemplating a pond in a tranquil wooded clearing, Bill Murray walking across the surface of a placid lake, a robot storming a peaceful forest. Once he's finished with his revisions, it's difficult to believe that what he's added to the scene wasn't always there. He takes enormous pains to make sure his work blends in with that of the original artist by carefully matching color palettes and mediums.
"In the beginning, it was kind of a problem, because, at the first Little Craft Show I did, people would walk right by my booth. They would think I was just selling flea market prints," he says. "They wouldn't get it. I would have people come into my booth and tell me they walked by it three times before they noticed. And then they get really excited, like it's this secret they discovered."
Today, he lives in a beautiful and cozy art- and light-filled home in downtown Fayetteville with Robin and their 9-year-old son. He and Robin have known each other since they were kids, when Jones was friends with Robin's older brother, Kent.
"When I was an adolescent, I had a huge crush on him," says Robin. "I would write my name as his last name (as young girls do) and I created a fan club. I think we even made T-shirts, and, of course, I was the president." When Jones returned to Northwest Arkansas after his freshman year at Westminster, says Robin, the two became reacquainted. "We decided to be friends but have been in love since.
"Jason oftentimes teases that he married his stalker. I say I set my sights early, and it was destiny. Either way, it's a good life."
The couple has done something few people are able to accomplish -- they've made a career, and a living, out of art. Robin works at the University of Arkansas as a training adviser, but she also serves as Jones' business partner. Jones says he often gets questions from other artists about how he does it. With characteristic humility, he's careful to share the credit for that with his wife, her stepfather -- who gave the couple a good deal on their home, which they have rehabbed on their own -- and a book called Your Money or Your Life that his mother recommended he read when he was right out of college.
"Everyone in the world should read this book," says Jones. "It really motivated me, and I focused on doing what I wanted to do. I give most of my credit to being a full time artist to that book. It kind of breaks down how to live in frugality, how to keep track of everything that comes in and goes out. And my wife and I built up a cushion, where if I got no paycheck for six months, we would be OK. Once you get that cushion, you can start really taking risks and working at it. It's less stress."
Robin says, from the beginning, the couple was determined to live a simple life and spend as little money as possible.
"That small-but-huge decision at the beginning of our marriage has given us so much freedom and power to take risks, to live comfortably, to worry less and to invest."
"I would rather live very simply, to do what I enjoy and love, rather than have a nice car or a big house," sums up Jones.
It's lucky for Northwest Arkansas that Jones left the sculpins and madtoms behind so that his astonishing art and quirky aesthetic might brighten our day-to-day lives.
"He has a wonderful sense of humor," says Withers. "He's incredibly modest and humble and has the kindest heart. He's gentle. And observant.
"He's loaned his talents to so many places in our community that I cannot imagine what Fayetteville would look like without him."
NAN Profiles on 10/22/2017