Her image virtually glows from a wall in the National Portrait Gallery, with a gaze at once innocent and knowing, resilient and radiant. In the photo, Wisconsin’s Elizah Leonard wears her Ho-Chunk regalia — earrings and a necklace beaded by her grandfather, a dress and shawl from the hands of her mother.
Surrounding Leonard’s likeness are shimmering beads, rhinestones and shells hand-stitched by the Madison-area photographer who created this prize-winning artwork, artist Tom Jones.
The picture of Leonard, part of a series by Jones titled “Strong Unrelenting Spirits,” captured second place in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a prestigious national show for the Smithsonian, and is now on display in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through Feb. 26. In 2023-24, it will tour the U.S.
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Jones, a photography professor at UW-Madison, is having an especially big year. This summer alone his artwork — steeped in his perspective as a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation — is part of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. On Saturday, the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend will celebrate the opening of his first major retrospective, “Tom Jones: Here We Stand,” featuring some 130 works from 16 series that span his career.
“Tom’s career has just been building and building and building,” said Graeme Reid, director of collections and exhibitions at MOWA. “There are other artists who can get in a rut, producing similar things time after time. One of the great things with Tom is that every body of work has a little bit of a different twist — or a completely different take on things.”
Jones’ second-place win in the Outwin competition “is just huge,” Reid said. “This is probably one of the premier portrait exhibitions in the entire country.”
Jones was born in North Carolina, but spent the summers of his youth with relatives in the Wisconsin village of Merrillan, just north of Black River Falls. He developed a strong sense of his Ho-Chunk culture from his maternal grandfather and his mother, JoAnn Jones — a UW Law School graduate who served as the first female president of the Ho-Chunk Nation and at 82 is an associate judge for the Ho-Chunk Nation Trial Court.
Eventually, Jones’ family moved to Madison and during his high school years at West, Jones would create and sell beaded work for the shop Katy’s Native American Arts and Gallery on Monroe Street. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at UW-Madison, then master’s degrees in photography and museum studies from Columbia College in Chicago.
Initially a painter, Jones moved to photography for its immediacy. He is also a curator and co-author of several books, including “People of the Big Voice: Photographs of Ho-Chunk Families by Charles Van Schaick, 1879-1942.”
“My mission is just to get more visibility for our people,” said Jones, who took his grandfather’s place in the Medicine Lodge in 2004.
While the Ho-Chunk were the original inhabitants of the Madison area, Jones said, “We were removed over seven times by the government, further west to various places.
“But they just kept coming back,” he said. With his new show at MOWA, “I really want to show that we’re still here. That’s why I decided on the title ‘Here We Stand,’ because it’s a gesture (showing) that we’re still on this land.”
Jones, 57, recently bought a former church in Prairie du Sac and has converted it into his home, with the original building serving as a studio and gallery and a newly constructed addition on the back for living space. Tables and shelves in the work space are filled with jars upon jars of glittering white beads.
In his series “Strong Unrelenting Spirits,” Jones portrays tribal members like Leonard at life-size or bigger scale. The subjects often look directly at the camera, making eye contact with the viewer to convey their strength, beauty and resilience. The intricate beading done on each large photo can take up to 120 hours.
“Many of the designs that are featured (in the beading) are family designs that are passed down from one generation to the next,” said Dakota Mace (Diné), now a well-known Madison-based artist and curator who came to UW-Madison in part because of Jones.
Jones’ combination of photography and beadwork is truly unique, said Mace, who is including a work by her mentor when she guest-curates the upcoming exhibition “Reclaiming Identity,” opening in August at the Trout Museum in Appleton.
“There aren’t a lot of Indigenous professors, at least in the U.S., especially working in the art field,” she said about Jones. “He’s such an amazing individual in terms of that, but also (his work) being kind of the first of its kind in the photography world, photography from an Indigenous perspective.”
After he joined the faculty at UW-Madison in 2005, Jones introduced digital photography to the art program and grew course offerings from two to 13.
He “maintains a deep sense of visual curiosity and has a clear commitment to making excellent and innovative works,” said art department chair Derrick Buisch. Jones “is an artist who can cultivate and manage several serious projects simultaneously.”
“I’m constantly moving,” said Jones. “But that’s something I think is a Ho-Chunk trait. My mother’s that way. My grandfather was that way.”
Jones’ exhibition at MOWA will fill three gallery spaces, making it only the third show at the museum to command that amount of real estate, Reid said.
“This is probably one of the most interesting and educational exhibitions I’ve ever done,” Reid said. “It’s just opened my mind to an aspect of American culture and Native American culture that I was just unaware of.”
Jones considers “Here We Stand” a “mid-career” retrospective, and plans to launch into even more new artistic challenges this summer. But in “Here We Stand,” he said, “It’ll be nice to see all of my work in one place.”