Nae’Keisha Jones has a knack for finding the positive.
Her eponymous exhibition at the Jewish Education Alliance’s gallery follows a theme of libraries and reading, on its own a positive thing, but Jones has also included work from the past few years that tackle deeper topics.
Take, for instance, her painting “Tightrope,” which depicts anxiety and insomnia with a girl walking a tightrope.
“I was like, ‘How can I paint that without it being [too heavy]?’” recalls Jones. “I wanted to show it in a dream-type state and what that feels like, because other people may not understand. And anxiety gets overused a lot, so how can I show this in a creative way and not make it a dark topic to talk about?”
The result is a dreamy painting with lots of rich blue hues and textured white sheep surrounding the girl.
Another painting was inspired by the rash of police-involved shootings that began happening after the death of Trayvon Martin.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this,’” admits Jones. “There were a lot of conversations happening about it, which is great, but how can I put this in an art piece without it being super gory and you just want to cry every time you look at it?”
The result is a painting of three boys with their backs turned, facing symbolic objects like clocks because, as Jones says, we never know when our time will end.
“I typically don’t do political work, but I needed a way to process this,” she explains. “It’s been a good conversation piece. It gets people talking and it can’t be brushed under the rug.”
Those are thematic departures for Jones, who’s also the author and illustrator of “Anonymous as a Hippopotamus: The Tales of Ida,” a children’s book that features her friend Ida and his search for his passion.
“It’s a cool coming of age story, figuring out who you are,” says Jones. “It was a really fun thing to write—it started to be a 32-page book and I got excited and turned it into a chapter book with 17 chapters.”
Jones’ passion for children’s book illustration is clear through the exhibition. Much of the work follows a library theme, since Jones is a big advocate for reading.
The central piece of the show, “Color Me Magic,” speaks to the magic of reading that Jones captures through the show. It’s her largest piece in the show, as well as her most ambitious: she incorporates artificial leaves and gold leaf into the painting, which lends a nice effect.
“I really wanted to do a large-scale coloring book, but without it looking incomplete,” shares Jones. “Usually in library settings, you’ll see big art pieces for the kids, so if I make it fancy and bougie, I can put that magical world in there without being all over the top.”
That’s exactly what happened with the piece, a whimsical painting of two little girls reading peacefully.
“I like to read, so how can I incorporate that into different pictures and encourage other people, whether it’s adults or kids, reading?” says Jones.
There are also some paintings inspired by books in Jones’ collection. She has two pieces based on the novel “The Dovekeepers” by Alice Hoffman, and one of those lessons is about listening to older women.
“A lot of times we don’t look to older women around us; we kind of brush them off, as if they haven’t lived a life before,” says Jones. “We all have different stories, and that was really reflected a lot in that book.”
That painting, “Hills and Valleys Wisdom,” features older women that comprise a mountain range. Jones also uses gold leaf in this piece, and it interacts well with the colors used for the women, specifically their dark brown skin tone and their white and purple hair. It’s a really beautiful piece that departs from Jones’ typical illustrative work, but for a great result.
In addition to this show, Jones will also be showcasing her work at Arts Across the River, a new opportunity at the Savannah Trade Center. That can be a big workload, but that’s just fine for Jones, who’s a bit of a workhorse.
“Every show I say, ‘I’m going to plan in advance,’ and then because I’m a creative I put new pieces in there,” says Jones. “If I already have seven ready, I think of 17 more things. Girl, you have two weeks!”
Jones’ creative process is intensive: she works on several paintings at once, but she trusts herself to allow the ideas to flow.
“I’m working on different pieces at different times. If I couldn’t figure out something with that, I just left it alone and come back to it. You know it’s going to come back to you,” says Jones. “I’ll write little notes for myself about what I would like in the picture so I don’t forget completely what it was supposed to look like. Especially some of the other complicated pieces I have coming out. I need to write everything I’m envisioning because then it’ll leave and I’m like, ‘I don’t remember. It was a cool idea, but who knows when that’s coming back?’”
Jones’ show at the JEA is a nice full-circle moment; she used to work as a camp counselor there.
“I’d see artists have their stuff all the time, and I was like, ‘Hm, maybe I can just insert myself in there!’” she remembers.
Jones has been in Savannah a long time, from Gould Elementary to SCAD, and she’s been interested in art the entire time.
“I’ve been serious about art since middle school,” she says. “I had a whole portfolio of everything in middle school and I started keeping track of my progress. Then I took a serious art class, probably in high school, and it worked out great. There were a couple other career options, but once I found out art was a career option, I was like, ‘If I can do that, that’d be great!”