Beach Artist Expected $400 for Painting and Wound Up with Half a Million

By ROBERTA T. VOWELL, The Virginian-Pilot
© December 5, 2006

The artist calls it “The Little Painting That Could.”

It’s just 8-by-12, a bit larger than the biggest photo in your kid’s school picture packet. It portrays a figure poised to dive into a mountain lake.

Louis Jones, a Virginia Beach artist, painted it in 1994 for the cover of an offbeat book called “Conversations with God,” written by a homeless man who said he received the manuscript as dictation from the Almighty.

Jones was paid $400 for use of his painting, “The Lake.”

Then a funny thing happened. The book sold 7 million copies. That’s 7 MILLION, in 24 languages. Jones is paid after every printing (118 printings so far), due to a contract made when nobody thought anyone would buy such a book.

Now comes “Conversations with God,” the movie, playing in art-film theaters around the country, including showings Wednesday and Thursday at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk.

Jones saw it last month at the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach. In one scene, the painting is blown up to movie-screen size.

“It was mind-numbing,” Jones said.

The original hangs in the bedroom of his Kempsville home.

“This is not my best work,” Jones said. “Technically, it’s not painted perfectly. The figure’s kind of funky, and the crest of the rocks could be painted better. But as far as touching people’s hearts, it’s art.”

Artist Louis Jones, it must be noted, is not the same person as Beach Councilman Louis Jones. The artist, 54, sports a shaggy head of black hair hovering between shoulder and waist and favors paint-spattered jeans and black T-shirts – “In about 1972, I found a look I liked and hung with that.”

He drives a 1990 Lincoln (an inheritance from his late father, well-known regional artist Herb Jones) and runs Jones Art, a Town Center gallery he owns with his wife, Susan, and their son, Ryan, 28.

With the first book’s success came Book 2 and 3 of “CWG” – that’s what fans call this spiritual powerhouse – then two books of “Conversations” meditations and a Windham Hill CD of “inspired-by” tunes that has sold 100,000 copies. All feature Jones’ artwork.

“Conversations” was first released by a then-local company, Hampton Roads Publishing, after the founder’s son, Jonathan Friedman, plucked it from the unsolicited manuscripts. He asked Jones, whose work he admired, to provide cover art.

“Four hundred dollars, that was all Hampton Roads Publishing could afford at the time,” said Friedman, a Virginia Beach book designer and filmmaker. “He was doing me a big favor.”

The success of “Conversations,” he said, “put the company on the map.” After selling 100,000 copies, they sold the rights to The Penguin Group.

Jones estimates his earnings from the painting at half a million dollars.

“A millionaire?” he said in reply to a direct question. “At different times, yes. Tons of money went through my hands.”

Obviously, he’s not buying pricey threads or hot cars. Instead, Jones opens galleries, some not successful.

A chunk of the money came from the painting’s inauspicious big-screen debut. Jones’ work may or may not have been used in the 1998 Robin Williams movie, “What Dreams May Come.” Jones thought the artwork and the look of the film was suspiciously familiar, and he sued Polygram Filmed Entertainment Distribution Inc. and Interscope Communications Inc. for $2 million.

The companies settled for an “undisclosed sum” two days after the film won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

Jones can’t talk about the lawsuit, but he does talk about karma and about the fact that “Dreams” director Stephen Simon also directed “Conversations With God.”

“The movie, it’s not that much money for me,” Jones said. “But it healed some old wounds. It was a chance for both of us to make a wrong, right.”

Jones plans to attend the Naro screenings.

“I’m just going to sit in the audience,” he said, “and beam.”

Reach Roberta T. Vowell at (757) 446-2327 or