When I began to paint my portrait of Jim Jones, I used the iconic black-and-white photograph that most of us know – the one of him Elvis-like with the hair and glasses – as my point of departure. There was also that sideways glance with more than a hint of paranoia, and I knew the story behind that stare. I struggled with capturing a likeness of the face, the colours turning grey and blue. His face looked like a corpse, like the 918 men, women and children who died in Guyana. This is where a racially-desegregated socialist dream had gone horribly wrong at the urging of a fraud named Jim Jones.
With promises of peace in the afterlife, a time of hard living built up to the eventual mass suicide, maniacal speeches blasting day and night over loudspeakers, mind control coupled with the promise of paradise, and pressure from the U.S. government brought a realisation that no one was getting out alive. Isolation coupled with abuse crept into my work. This tension was reflected in ragged brushstrokes, messiness of paint, splatters and drips.
I painted a shark in the bottom corner because I saw Jones as a predator, hunting and gathering his followers, amazing them with healing powers and utopian vision. But this was a mask to cover up sickness, hypocrisy, torture and manipulation. And yet there was much charisma in that photo; it was a struggle not to make him look too handsome.
My portrait of him looks like a 2D mask, it’s flat. The shark is crying because I felt sad. The golden orbs of light around the head are souls of those who died, those who didn’t mean to join a cult, who were looking only for meaning and transcendence in life. Did they fall victim to a narcissistic, charismatic leader who used the social unrest in the U.S. to convert followers? Or did they choose of their own free will?
His glasses are alarmingly gold just like his false promises of racial harmony, spiritual alignment and agricultural prosperity. Meanwhile, the shark lurks underneath smelling blood, like red marks that weave their way around the canvas, ready to strike with permanent frown and sharpened teeth. The jagged black lines around Jones’ head are a thorny halo, a ragged aura of desperation, depression and fear over losing control.
Frantic marks are anxiety upon reflection of the White Night, ingestion of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, force feeding it to the children. Why couldn’t you just let them go? Did they ever find the peace that you promised? Who am I to judge?
My brief exploration into this subject and the painted portrait that ensued was a blip in my ongoing artistic practice. I do not normally paint such subject matter, but it’s also true that around this time, I finished a painting featuring imagery from Heaven’s Gate religious group. I was dabbling in research about religious groups/mass suicide. These paintings are the shadow side of spirituality and community.
When I had my solo exhibition in the UK, a couple of people mentioned this painting as their favourite. Some knew about Jonestown, others did not. Perhaps this incident is not remembered here in the UK as much as in the United States. I was left with more questions and a painting that creeped me out. It is a messy portrait of a complicated man.
(Mary Lou Springstead is an artist living in the United Kingdom. Her website is www.marylouspringstead.com.)