What's it all about?

Exhibit Overview

In 1987, when Megan Hart Jones was 20 years old, she painted a portrait of herself standing–like a saint in a medieval altar painting–against a brilliant gold background. It was the last work she completed before she died later that year, the victim of a rare form of cancer that invades the adrenal glands in the kidneys.

In “Soul Portrait,” she seems already to inhabit some unearthly realm, blessing the viewer with her right hand and holding a sheaf of tightly budded roses in the crook of her left arm.

By all accounts devout, private, intelligent, wryly humorous, hard-working and dedicated to her art, Jones sounds almost too good to be true. She enjoyed the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart and Vivaldi, Tina Turner and the Eurythmics. She loved Laura Ashley clothes, the color pink, carnations and cherry Coke. She was a loyal friend and a devoted daughter. And she was a strikingly gifted realist artist.

A selection of her paintings, drawings and the tiny ceramic sculptures she made in her last year is on view at the Ettinger Gallery of the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach through April 28.

The largest group of works in the exhibition are cloud studies, carefully worked up in graphite, watercolor or colored pencil. Jones once wrote that clouds were “among the least explored subjects (in art). . . . They can be represented realistically, yet at the same time appear abstract. Clouds are a paradox and an enigma.”

But the most compelling pieces in the show are the portraits–of herself, her friends and her mother, Chadlyn Jones–and the delicate, scrupulously rendered still lifes that she conceived of in religious terms that she apparently never discussed, even with her closest friends.

Only the tiniest hints of a flesh-and-blood person with problems and doubts and rebellions seep through the immaculate picture offered by her mother, friends and teachers. But the central fact about her personality seems to have been the relentless perfectionism and fierce self-control that drove her to dedicate her life to her work and keep its deepest meanings to herself.

A self-portrait as Lady Macbeth from 1985 brings the viewer up short: Why would an even-tempered, good-natured young woman choose to portray herself as Shakespeare’s malevolent heroine, the woman whose ruthlessness drove her husband to murder his host and who bloodied her own hands in the murder of innocent castle guards?

In an earlier version of the graphite drawing (in which she wears a lace-trimmed gown designed by Laura Ashley and a favorite necklace with a single pearl), Jones drew a snake emerging from her sleeve. Her mother says she asked why this image had been covered up in the final version, and her daughter replied, “It’s not necessary.” But Chadlyn Jones found the passage in “Macbeth” (Act I, Scene 5, Line 66) that might make the meaning clearer:

“Look like the innocent flower,/ But be the serpent under ‘t.”

“Is that who you are?” Chadlyn Jones asked her daughter. “No,” she replied. “It is a dual portrait.” The following year, the artist noted in one of her private jottings that her idea of a dual portrait was “a representational image of a person and the mood or psyche of a fictional character.” Perhaps the tension she intended to create in the portrait was meant to mirror the basic human struggle between good and evil. Perhaps she recognized, even in her own high-minded drive to make art, echoes of the relentless, darkly directed forces that drove Lady Macbeth.

Or perhaps–as some people close to her choose to think–the portrait was no more than a harmless costume drama. But the more one hears about Jones’ extraordinary introspection, religious devotion and intelligence, the harder that is to believe.

“From the moment she was born, I knew why I was on earth,” Chadlyn Jones says. “She went everywhere with us–parties, luncheons with me, places where you don’t take babies.”

Her father is artist John Paul Jones, who teaches in the UC Irvine studio art department. When their daughter was 9, the Joneses left their airy, ocean-view house in Laguna Beach for a 10-month sojourn in Europe, mostly in Madrid, where they often visited the Prado to look at the paintings of the Spanish masters. Enrolled in a private school, Megan Jones began to write stories and poems for her own amusement, which she would continue to do for the rest of her life.

Chadlyn Jones says the family was not religious at all and “didn’t have a Bible in the house,” but when her daughter was 12 or 13, she went to a book fair and purchased one. Soon thereafter, at Megan Jones request, she was baptized (along with her mother) in the Episcopal Church.

A couple of years later, the Joneses separated. The experience must have been traumatic to the adolescent girl, who loved both her parents but whose personality–according to friends–most resembled her father’s. Perhaps this was the time that she became the “very private person” her acquaintances describe.

Mia Di Sandro–a former neighbor and peer who had known Megan Jones since she was 5–agreed that the young woman was troubled by the divorce but refused to discuss the matter further.

As a young woman, Di Sandro said, Megan Jones was “very calm and levelheaded and very respectful and accepting of other people–not the type to make a judgment. She didn’t let people get to her.” Yet she was also “a very controlled person. She told you what she wanted to tell you.”

At 14, Megan Jones began to study drawing evenings and Saturdays at the Laguna Beach College of Art (the former name of the Art Institute of Southern California). Jonathan Burke, who still teaches there, remembers his “amazement” at her “acute observation” and “accurate perception–how well she could lock into form at the beginning. It seemed that (her) style was very natural to her, as if she had already made up her mind” about the direction her art would take.

In high school, she developed anorexia nervosa, a psychologically motivated aversion to eating that tends to occur in young women. Perversely, she also loved to cook; she specialized in desserts, including puff pastry, and also liked to make ethnic dishes. To earn money for college, she baked white chocolate chip cookies that she sold twice a week at the cafe adjacent to the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery.

At Smith College, she chose to do a paper on anorexia for her freshman English composition class and turned out a beyond-the-call-of-duty 48-page thesis that won the college’s Maya Yates writing prize.

Hal Akins, her art teacher at Laguna Beach High School, says she was one of the “top three or four” of the approximately 15,000 students he has taught in his 38-year career.

“She’d sit right at the very front desk, about 3 feet from me,” he remembers. “She was very quiet and introspective. We’d have quiet conversations. We’d discuss the philosophical content of her work. She loved to do that. . . . There’d be kids screwing around, and she would just work. But she had a fey sense of humor. Once in a while, she’d (deliver) a W.C. Fields-style aside to me or to her friends.”

Normally, Akins gives a “fairly structured” class for students in their first and second years of high school. But in Megan Jones’ freshman year, he says, he thought she was “grounded enough to put her in the studio and turn her loose.”

Using colored pencils, she liked to draw images from her travels in a meticulous style. One scene–two women in a Spanish grocery store festooned with fruits and vegetables–took her 4 months to complete. She patiently applied layer after layer of Prismacolor to create the fine tonal gradations in the cloud drawings.

“Her work was very traditional in a lot of respects,” Akins says. “It developed so slowly that she didn’t make many mistakes in proportion.”

A mural that Laguna Beach High commissioned from her (it hangs in the cafeteria) shows 15 life-size images of students posing with sports equipment, musical instruments or books. She once explained that the students are all painted in gray because “the shadows of the past should not overwhelm these people.”

Her remark was just one of many tantalizingly mysterious pronouncements that she preferred not to explain. Perhaps she meant that the students should not feel, in later years, as though their teen-age personalities were upstaging them. By painting their teen-age selves in gray, the young artist gave them a more muted quality.

While she was still in high school, Megan Jones began to show her work locally. It was included in an “Up and Coming” show of young artists at TLK Gallery in Costa Mesa and group exhibits at Mills House Art Gallery in Garden Grove, the Laguna Beach Museum of Art (as it was then known) and the Irvine Fine Arts Center.

It was her idea to go to Smith College in Northampton, Mass. She was intrigued by the prospect of living in snow country. Perhaps she saw a relationship between New England and the British Isles, where she felt very much at home.

Smith is one of the Seven Sister schools–the female version of the Ivy League–and it has a reputation for solid academic standards. Megan Jones, who also played the flute and continued to pursue her creative writing, considered herself something of a Renaissance woman. In any case, her reserve and serious interests were vastly different from the stereotype of the Southern California girl.

At Smith, one of her closest friends was Shoba Mathew, a student from India receiving her first taste of American life.

“Megan was my first American friend,” Mathew says. “She helped me with culture shock of all different kinds. . . . She was a very quiet sort of person for the most part. She never spoke unless she had something to say, like her father. She was extremely systematic about everything she did and never wasted any time. Freshman year, during exams (which may be taken at any time during the exam period) she had everything done by the first day.

“Next to my sister, she was one of the most compulsively perfectionist people I ever knew.” But she could also be “a lot of fun,” Mathew says. “She was very good at mimicking people . . . and she could do a mean imitation of Tina Turner in ‘Private Dancer.’ She definitely had a sense of humor.”

A nature lover, Megan Jones often took long bike rides and walks by herself. “She really enjoyed being alone,” Mathew says. “It re-energized her. It was what, in the end, gave her such strength.”

According to Mathew, Megan Jones didn’t date anyone in particular, but “she always had a dry, deadpan attitude about it. ‘Well, if it happens, it happens,’ she’d say, ‘but I’m not going to waste my time over it.’ ” (Chadlyn Jones says her daughter once told her about a boy who called her late at night and couldn’t understand why she would rather work on her art than go out with him. “If you don’t understand that, I can’t see you,” she told him.)

Her work was “her first priority.” In “Portrait of a Story,” a long essay that the young artist kept private during her lifetime (her mother arranged to have it published after her death in a private edition published at Smith College), Megan Jones describes her work on a still life she called “Eternal Force”–the most ambitious drawing she made.

Her still life consists of several carefully positioned images: three evenly spaced paper sacks of wildflowers; 12 lustrous loose pearls, a slice of angel food cake with a knife and fork arranged so their shadows form a cross; an egg in a cup, a bar of Dove soap wrapped in a napkin and a half-filled Coke bottle. The individual texture of each object is remarkably clearly defined, from the gleam of the silverware to the transparency of the heavy glass bottle and the dense sponginess of the cake.

She wrote that she had purchased the wildflowers, stuck them in Pepperidge Farm cookie bags and noticed one day how nice they looked in a chance ray of winter sun. The plan of the still life took shape during Christmas vacation, when she devised a symbolic meaning for the composition.

“After all,” she mused, with an acuity beyond her years, “in 1985, beauty, pristine realism and integral clarity are not loud enough artistic considerations to speak with (or against) the shrill, and sometimes raucous voice of ‘contemporary’ art, which often confuses messages with propaganda and energy with hype.

“Nor were these goals lofty enough to compete against the quiet side of modernism, where mere bland and banal inference is masked to show instead a false subtle profundity and meaningful shallowness.”

She wrestled with the problem of the inaccessibility of most symbolism to the average viewer but decided to imbue the work with specific Christian symbols reinterpreted in a fresh, complex way–and not without humor.

“The tone of the drawing should be peaceful, demure and reassuring but at the same time it is comic and almost sarcastic,” Megan Jones wrote.

The sunlit Coke bottle, representing the Incarnation, also stands for the blood of Christ, “which will be drunk,” she wrote, “as Cokes usually are.” The bar of Dove, a “symbol of cleanliness” that fits in with the Last Supper theme of the cleansing of sins, also represents the Holy Spirit.

At Smith, in search of a place where the still life could remain intact for the many weeks it would take to finish drawing it, she decided to make her own studio in the attic of Parsons House, her dormitory. She crept upstairs from her first-floor room 5 or 6 days a week to work on the piece for at least 4 hours at a stretch.

“That cake was lying there for months!” Megan’s friend Mathew said, laughing. “It would get fungus on it and Megan would just scrape it off.”

When classes were finished in the spring, Megan Jones still wasn’t finished. She asked if she could stay in Parsons House through commencement and her request was denied. But she stayed an extra 10 days anyway, sleeping a few hours a night on the living-room couch, sneaking into the dining room for an occasional meal and suffering the “100-degree microwave effect” of being cooped up in an attic during the muggy Eastern summer.

Janis Theodore, an assistant professor in the art department at Smith, supervised Megan Jones while she worked on “Eternal Force” as an independent studies project in still life drawing–a private tutorial of a kind normally reserved for more advanced students.

“Megan was one of the few students I had that was so skilled, so formed as an artist, as a draftsman,” Theodore recalls, echoing the girl’s other art teachers.

“She was so clear in her conceptualization and what she wanted to do that there was very little direction I actually offered her. She would work on major projects that were so time-consuming–they were something you would expect of someone who had completed graduate school.

“It was hard to discuss her work with her because I think she felt it was so precious and so personal, and she was so clear in her direction that she–how can I say?–didn’t really encourage constructive criticism. But I think that’s because she was very mature as an artist at that point.”

Theodore says she did not mention many well-known artists she admired, but she did like the work of James Valerio and William Beckman, both East Coast realist painters.

“I’m sure she looked at Ingres and Vermeer,” Theodore adds. “And I think her father had a lot to do with her formation. That kind of work ethic is very unusual.”

John Paul Jones, whom friends say is still very distraught about his daughter’s death, did not attend the opening of the exhibition and was not available for an interview.

Megan Jones spent the summer of 1985 visiting Wales with her father and his new wife. She hadn’t wanted to come home but her mother insisted, and she put the finishing touches on “Eternal Force” in Laguna Beach before she returned to Smith for her sophomore year.

That fall, her legs began to swell, and Mathew remembers she kept telling her friend–without success–to go to the doctor. Eventually, Megan Jones was obliged to wear bedroom slippers because she could no longer put on her shoes.

In October, when she finally went to the infirmary, a CAT scan revealed a tumor as large as a football. She left immediately for California, telling Mathew that there was a growth, but not saying whether or not it was malignant. She said she hoped to be back in the spring.

“In the spring,” Mathew said, “she said she’d be back in the fall (of 1986), and in the fall–that’s when she realized she would not be able to come back ever.”

After her operation at the UCLA Medical Center in November, Megan Jones began a course of treatment that included several experimental drugs. Her moods went up and down but “when she felt well her face glowed and she started doing her art again,” her friend Mia Di Sandro recalls.

Among her last pieces were little clay sculptures of women with attached haloes, “Eve I” and “Eve II.” On the back of photographs of the pieces, she wrote, “Eve II is stronger and more self-assured than Eve I. Her body is painted to look like the marble at the UCLA hospital.”

Toward the end, her parents rented a guest house in Los Angeles to be near her. “I never believed she was going to die,” Chadlyn Jones said. “We lived our lives as naturally as though there was a tomorrow. We were going out to dinner, going to the movies.”

In May, on the last day Megan Jones was alive, her parents brought “Soul Portrait” to the hospital room where she lay in a coma. Their daughter had specified the size and color of the stones to be set in the frame, and the work was now completed. Chadlyn took her daughter’s hand and rubbed it across the top of the frame.

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