Artist Douglas Jones once traveled and lived in a school bus, selling his artistic creations along the way. But after a Tybee resident “discovered” the fish artist at a Savannah flea market, Jones' life took a serendipitous turn.
“He told me I belonged on Tybee Island,” Jones said. So the artist took a detour east to the end of Highway 80 to have a look – and found himself a home.
“Tybee wanted me here,” he said, smiling broadly. “The people of Tybee have done everything possible to support me and keep me here.”
At his very first showing on the island in 2002, Jones realized an artist’s dream when the people who stopped to admire his art bought everything he had for sale.
“I’d never been anywhere that they’d bought everything I had, and when I came back again the following spring they bought everything I had again. I was doing fish (sculptures) and musical instrument fountains and the people here loved it.”
Jones soon located his business in a large sunny field across Highway 80 from the Dragonfly Studios. He, and his open-air tented art gallery, quickly became an island institution.
“If you’re going to be a world famous artist, people have to find you. I’ll just stay at Tybee because that’s where they buy my stuff and that’s where I want to be,” he said.
But even quirky artists have to sometimes play by the rules. To go into business Jones had to acquire a business license, a process he said the City of Tybee made painless.
“I went and asked if I could have my business in a tent there and they gave me a license to do that. ... and the next thing you know I had five tents there. They never told me I couldn’t do that, but we got a new city manager who said it might be better if I could have a building.”
The new building is scheduled to be built within the next couple of months near the same site.
Jones said Tybee City Manager Diane Schlesinger helped him with the design process for his new combination studio and gallery, and in presenting it before City Council. Jones said his only worry was he might be asked to say something during that process, as he had done during earlier meetings before the Planning Commission. But, to his relief, when asked if he cared to comment a friend told him he didn’t have to say anything.
“So I just shook my long hair ‘No’ and it took about two minutes and fourteen seconds to pass through Council. To me that’s a vote of confidence ... I’m not really a business person, I’m an artist, but it’s good to get that vote of confidence from your city. Who wants to be where they’re not wanted? This is our little ‘Cheers’ down here, where everybody knows you name.”
Certainly everybody on the island knows Jones’ “fishmobile,” a dark green Geo Tracker covered with magnetic “fish art,” and they can’t miss his sprawling “Fish Art” business when they leave or arrive back on Tybee. In recent months they’ve watched his building rise from the ground, put together by Jones and his many supportive friends, “one nail at a time.”
“It’s been fun, hammering and nailing, and singing a few beach songs while suffering a few bruised thumbs. I’m waiting on the inspectors now to come tell me what I need to do to get inspected, and then we’ll be moving everything inside, away from the romance of being in a tent on Tybee Island.”
Jones said his customers have loved his tents and their childhood backyard-fort ambiance. But he’s confident they’ll enjoy his new surroundings just as much, when Tybee’s only tented art gallery goes inside towering wooden walls lit by bright sunshine prismed through a rippled Plexiglas roof.
Jones isn’t much of a worrier. Those days ended for him in 1997 when, after a very bleak period in his life, he turned his back on a mainstream life and embraced his art.
“It was winter in North Carolina, cold and damp, and I had just broken up with my girlfriend. I had actually become suicidal. It was either do something different or kill myself,” he said, with a brief grimace at the memory.
“So I made me a woman out of PVC pipe and red neon. It was beautiful, and the scrap pieces that came out of it I cut up and used to make my first fish – a PVC fish embellished with neon. It was a sight to see. People would ride by and say, “What the hell is that?”
With a working background as a commercial artist and in sales, and a family history in the textiles business where he invented a number of useful devices used in the complex machinery, Jones “knew how to put things together.”
He began making sculpture and, in the year 2000, was encouraged by a customer at an art deco show in South Beach, to stop making things out of glass and move to a more permanent medium.
“That’s when my boat pieces began, made of brass and teak, copper, materials like that.”
Jones was recently working in his brand new Tybee building one windy day and the door wouldn’t stay closed. Using materials at hand – in this case string and an old faucet – he rigged it so when the door is opened the faucet goes up toward the ceiling, and if the door isn’t then closed the faucet slowly drops, causing the door to shut. It’s the kind of on-the-spot improvisation his customers love.
“That’s what my work is about, taking objects that are often damaged or unusable and recreating their life into something else. I’m the ultimate recycler because that’s just what happened to me. I was lost in my life and had a change of direction. I stopped my drinking and other self-destructive behaviors and found a support system of caring friends, a system I still enjoy the benefits of today; more so all the time.”
With his gift to see outside the box he searches out junkyard treasures that become “works of art that make people smile.” He once turned 20,000 belt buckles into fish and just recently bought 5000 pairs of unfinished earrings he intends to use as fish scales on a current sculpture.
“I like fish. I like to catch them, I like to clean them, I like to eat them,” he said. “And I like their shapes. I study the shapes of fish in books all the time. I collect things that come to me and spread them all out and then it takes it own form ... I collect all kinds of things, jewelry, big colorful eyeballs, and brass, copper, stainless steel, aluminum. Those are the kinds of materials for the coast because they don’t rust. Steel isn’t happy in my hand. I don’t relate to rust. I can touch brass and it has a special touch for me, all the precious metals do,” Jones said.
“You know, I finally just gave in to art after awhile, I can’t not do it. I get started making pieces and I can’t stop ... I just go till I drop, then rest awhile and go again.”
Jones said residents are checking on the progress of his new building and stopping by with words of encouragement.
“They know I was in a bus, then a tent, and now I’m going to be in a building, creating ambiance as I go,” he said, laughing.
Signs around his business add to that ambiance with messages like: “I, Douglas, am a surprisingly wonderful, Divinely perfect man” and “Thank you, Tybee, for making me a world famous artist.”
“And I am. People come here from all over and buy. I ship my stuff all over the world. And while the recycling part of my work is great, and the re-creation of my own life is wonderful, my purpose in life today is to make things that make people smile.”