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Keeping up with the Joneses: the family that paints together is in business together
By Kimberly Pierceall
Jan 28, 2017
Jones Art Gallery still running strong in Virginia Beach
That whole “starving artist” thing? The Joneses aren’t interested.
“That holds no magic for us,” said painter and illustrator Louis Jones, the patriarch in a family of artists and son of the late Herb Jones, who popularized foreboding watercolor scenes of Tidewater and its water fowl in the 1960s.
The “us”? That’s Louis, 64; his wife of 41 years, Susan; and son Ryan, 39.
It’s been their name outside the Jones Art Gallery in the Virginia Beach Town Center for 13 years, their paintings on the walls, their stories in each piece.
The print of a lone tree at night, branches filling the canvas?
“That’s my self-portrait,” said Louis, pointing to his work titled “Reaching.” “That tree is never going to reach the moon.”
Or “Mother’s Nature,” a painting Ryan made for Susan featuring an unfathomable number of tiny brush strokes for each blade of grass and forest of trees, a task he said took 27 hours to paint a single corner.
“Every stroke was for her,” he said.
Painting has been the fun part. The vast majority of their effort as working artists, though, is spent on promotion, building a reputation that justifies a piece of work’s value and having a presence where most people are: online.
“The money has to be there for us to create,” Ryan said.
The family estimates they’ve sold a half a million pieces of original paintings and limited-edition prints combined. And that’s not counting Ryan’s work recently appearing on a Los Angeles musician’s album cover (“Stars” by Samson), Susan’s new age literary cover designs, and Louis’ illustrations inside millions of copies of John Grisham and Ian McEwan books – and on the cover of “Conversations with God,” a best-selling book translated into dozens of different languages. That one has earned Louis more than half a million dollars alone since 1995.
Susan prefers acrylic. Louis and Ryan, watercolor. Louis graduated from Old Dominion University. Susan and Ryan graduated from Virginia Wesleyan College. When they’re not painting, Susan handles the books while Louis and Ryan focus on selling.
Each has had own challenges. Louis, cancer. Susan, a brain aneurysm giving birth to Ryan, and later arthritis that left her unable to paint for a year. Ryan, Crohn’s disease.
“Pretty much the art is what’s kept us alive,” Ryan said, smiling.
Anyone else might blame a curse. The Joneses, ever on the bright side, instead point to paintings that often resulted.
Like the moment Louis woke up April 9, 2014 with a bulging throat and later a diagnosis: lymphoma.
“We were devastated,” Susan said, “for a minute.”
Then they got to work painting what they were feeling, even Louis.
He created “Overjoyed,” an unlikely title but a nod to the gift each new day would represent.
Ryan’s result: dark, angry clouds in a piece titled “Breaking Skies.” Susan painted “Changes,” a thick fall forest with bits of blue sky peeking through.
“It still has the hope there,” Louis said. “It never defeated her.”
He kept the original for himself. He had earned it, Susan said.
When Louis found out he was in remission in January 2015, she painted “Joy,” full of color and a big sun rising over the water.
In an industry where tastes and trends constantly change, the Joneses said they’ve stuck to what they do best, what they’re inspired to paint.
“There’s always a market for quality,” Louis said. “We are the Rolex. We are the Martin guitar of art.”
What they aren’t? Carbon copies of each other, or Herb Jones.
Herb died in 1998, at 75. The aging artist shot himself in his home.
His death so unsettled Ryan that he stepped away from the family business for a short time, even working as a restaurant dishwasher near Blacksburg, until he felt he could create again. Louis said Ryan came home “a new man with a mission.” Ryan said he still talks with his granddad through his paintings.
And he’s heard it before. Someone will take note of his relationship to Herb Jones and “they immediately think of my granddad’s geese flying.”
Ryan alternates between broad-brush impressionist scenes to skies glowing with color to serene landscapes with details and stories painted in the windows of homes.
The Joneses also aren’t a factory where the artist farms out most of the work to a staff of painters or ones to seize on whatever’s trendy.
The family business started as the Herb Jones Art Studio around 1962, later evolving into the Louis and Susan Jones Art Gallery in about 1980, opening in Dominion Tower in 1993 and later the Lynnhaven Mall. They’ve been solely at the Virginia Beach Town Center as Jones Art Gallery since 2004.
“We bet everything on ourselves,” Louis said. “We earned it. Any failure, we’ve earned it, too.”
Gerald Divaris, chairman and CEO of Town Center’s management company, said it was important that a gallery be a part of the shopping hub and that part of the reason the gallery has succeeded has been their business model selling not only original paintings priced for tens of thousands of dollars but prints. He said he had an Herb Jones painting in his home before he first visited the family’s gallery, and later added paintings by Susan and Ryan.
“I don’t have Louis’!” he said, laughing, adding that he plans to get one for his new office at Town Center.
The gallery was recently filled with Beatles music playing in the background, not by accident.
“I want to be what we’re listening to,” Louis said – not a fad, but art that transcends time and trends, he said.
“That’s why we paint paintings that were in style in 1900. And we paint things that will be in style in the year 3000,” Louis said.
Louis got his start building frames and eventually led a sales team of 50 art brokers selling his father’s work to 300 galleries across the country while building up his own portfolio, training that still helps him sell his family’s art today.
He recalled an adage from his father Herb: “If I’m good enough, they can’t ignore me.”
“When you come here, you get authenticity,” he said. “You’re buying a painting from the guy who painted it.”
That, too, has required some thick skin when a person may visit and declare the art not to their liking or scoff at the price.
“It’s like you’re hanging on the wall naked all the time,” Ryan said.
The life and business of an artist isn’t for everyone, they said.
“You do have to live very middle,” Louis said.
They’ve been rich, they’ve been poor. So they’ve learned to live in the space between.
Ryan said his dad even tried to talk him out of it. Don’t you want to be an eye doctor, he asked?
But Ryan was just as drawn to the family business as they were, starting with sitting on his granddad’s lap taking turns painting, to majoring in art at Virginia Wesleyan.
“He is what he is, just like he’s got blue eyes,” Susan said.
Ryan admits the occasional panicked thought crosses his mind, that no one will ever walk through the gallery door and buy a painting again.
“It’s both exciting and terrifying,” he said.
Recently, he went a few weeks without selling anything and then, one day, $11,000 worth of prints and paintings.
It’s also why they stay open from noon to 9 p.m. every day – you never know who might walk through the door. Like John Grisham when the gallery was in Norfolk, unannounced, unrecognized, liking what he saw, leading to multiple commissioned drawings from Louis on his book’s title pages.
“It only takes one,” Louis said.
“And he makes you enough money for a month,” Ryan said.
The family erected speakers on the outside to entice passers-by to peek in. Louis said the vast majority of people who walk in ultimately buy something.
They said they certainly don’t mind those who don’t, though. Ryan said he’ll sometimes get a defensive, “I’m just looking,” reaction when he approaches someone who walked in.
“Well,” he said, “that’s why we painted ‘em.”
Kimberly Pierceall, 757-550-1903, email@example.com
For others looking to do what the Jones family has done, building up and maintaining an art business for decades, they have some advice:
Be honest in who and what you are. The Joneses say they make it clear to buyers when they’re selling a high-quality print versus an original, for example. And they paint what they love – much of it, nature.
Find your own niche.
Nurture your clients. Most of their collectors have become family friends.
Work, often 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
Herb Jones Louis Jones Susan Jones Ryan Jones Samson John Grisham Ian Mcewan Conversations With God Jones Art Gallery Virginia Beach Tidewater
Kimberly Pierceall is a business reporter at The Virginian-Pilot.