Artist Depicts Jonestown Lessons in Childrens Animals

by Andrew Brandou

Art by Andrew Brandou

i am an artist based in los angeles. most of my work has focused on issues that somehow affected my life. i tend to focus on something from my childhood, or my fears, or both. i do intensive research, as opposed to acting only on my emotional response to my childhood memories. i revisit them as an adult. i use books, the internet, film, memorabilia and personal interviews to flesh out my ideas. i try to come try to grips with the issue for myself, or at least open myself to examining various points of view. this website has been instrumental in my assessment of peoples temple. for this i am grateful the very many contributors to the site. it has not been an alternative source of peoples temple information for me, as its attitude and approach felt in tune with my own. i learned of the personal histories – especially the fears, triumphs, and contradictions of the members of peoples temple and their legacy – through the site, and in turn learned so much about myself through those combined experiences that i owe them a great debt.

i was ten years old living in michigan when the events in guyana occurred, so on one hand i have no direct relationship to them. on the other hand, i was attending catholic school. each morning after for quite some time, the sermons tended to be responses to the tragedy. my teachers and priests not only described the events to me, but my own brothers and sisters, all 14 years or more older than myself. their point of view did not always align with what other authority figures had said. i became driven to understand exactly “what” had taken place, not only to the victims of circumstance who became “a nations tragedy” but to myself, as a frightened child suddenly forced to question authority. these are the forces which have always driven me for my series regarding peoples temple.

i have 30 some pieces, only 10 of them recalling specific events in south america. i have no interest in mocking anyone, glorifying tragedy, playing into conspiracy theory, or being overtly graphic. as a matter of fact, if you did not know it, you may not even realize the paintings were about the peoples temple in particular. i humbly submit that this is because i am coming from a youthful perspective, as an outside observer trying to reverse engineer an “unsolvable” situation.

i have found that a visual shorthand helps to focus on the types of stories i tell. for this reason, i call forth the simple graphic nature of childrens book artwork as a shell around my concepts. most people seem to respond very rapidly to the benign nature of the visuals, and have an easy time deciphering them. for example, i use animals in my work instead of humans. most people have vivid memories of the childrens books they read. they understand things like a lion is king of the jungle, or a rabbit is the everyman. the use of these simple visual metaphors works to take away distractions. if i attempted to portray jim jones specifically, people would find flaws or idiosyncrasies that have nothing to do with the story im trying to tell. if i simplify him by making him a lion, he becomes a hieroglyph, filed away under jones, and you can then go straight into the story.

before producing this show, i had done several shows based on my emotional response to issues that many have deemed taboo. as an artist based in california, i have tried to define a juxtaposition of pop culture and fear, based on my own experience. for instance, the manson family is attached to california in both its horrible conclusion and its pop culture resonance. the culture that raised me both consumed and questioned books and films such as helter skelter. i was driven to sift through information and artifacts surrounding the case.

the border line between reality and assumption is familiar territory for me by now, and im comfortable there. for years, i contemplated the difference between reality and assumption as it related to peoples temple. it took that long before i even thought i could describe it from my point of view, while leaving my work open enough for the audience to engage and find their own interpretation. as an artist, i want to act as a gateway for people to learn more. i want to bring a viewer into a story so that they can find something new and relevant to themselves. whether it relates directly to the story, or is more of an emotional response, i feel successful if a connection is made and a dialogue occurs.

Art by Andrew Brandou

given six or so months to physically create the pieces, i will usually use the first three to really intensify my research on the topic at hand. i gather all my media together, and concentrate on the subject in and out of my studio. i also gather reference images outside of the story, including childrens books, iconic photos, and historical art from the period. in the case of peoples temple, i found a great deal of inspiration in soviet propaganda posters. not only could i find resonance to the story, but their simple graphic nature presented a strong framework in which to place my ideas. i also found several lists of guyanese proverbs, which i found particularly resonant and wanted to incorporate.

finally, i searched for something tactile. i wanted to utilize something that would remind the viewer that the places and events in this story were rooted in reality. because i usually paint on wood panels, it occurred to me that both redwood city and guyana are known for their exotic and unique woods. in the end, i purchased wood from indiana, northern california, and guyana. the unique woods i found brought me to realize that there was a kind of psychogeography involved in the story that i myself could relate to. as a transplant from michigan to california, i found that extending the story to include some of the temples early history would be necessary. i did not know how i would utilize the actual wood itself, but it helped to see and feel it. the wood i found from indiana came as planks of a 200-year-old barn that had been torn down. it was rough cut, with unique knotholes and edges, and it reminded me of age and the phrase “old time religion.” the wood from northern california was incredibly rich redwood. these were pieces found washed ashore that had been sliced so that you could see the burl, and the edges were completely rough and organic. the wood from guyana was a hardwood called purpleheart. it was hard enough that it had to be cut with a special saw blade, and was a rich purple in color. it reminded me both of kingly robes and of the notorious “grape” Flavor Aid.

having gathered most of my reference and outside materials, i then moved on to sketching out the series of works. i usually do 2 or 3 times the number of pieces i need as very small, very rough thumbnails. i dont try to edit myself as i do them, so that new compositions and ideas can flow quickly and my subconscious mind can create. next, i enlarge and clean up the pieces i think i can make into cohesive ideas. some will be very simple, others more complex. i can begin to see the series taking form. in the case of the peoples temple show, i found that there was a rhythm forming. pieces describing the early days of the temple were simpler, more general. as the temples history progressed and more people of different backgrounds and motivations joined, the pieces became more complex and larger. i decided at that time to incorporate that as a metaphor as well, so that there would be a subtle build up in the viewers mind.

once i have narrowed down my pieces, i enlarge them all their final sizes in the computer. this allows me to rearrange the elements, make straight lines, and so on. then i print them, cut the panels they will be on to size, and attach the final drawings to the panels. from there i paint the panels, making very few changes. i have a number of friends who come by at this point and assist me. they help prepare the paintings, mix my colors, apply gold leaf, and fill in flat colors. in this way i work on all the paintings at once, and can spend the extra time on details and more involved compositions.

following is a list of the pieces, and a short description of each. in general, i broke the story up into three stages; indiana, california, and guyana. the pieces generally grew in size as the story went along. they also tend to define much more specific ideas towards the end. it was my intent to use generalities at first, so that the casual viewer might begin with a fresh approach to peoples temple. repeated motifs included jones portrayed as a lion, often in purple robes. flowers represented life or growth, while thorns represented a darker side of growth. in many pieces, i introduced a floating skull, sometimes as a harbinger of death, sometimes as an enigmatic observer. the skull is one of a man, not an animal, to further represent the viewer. i often add an organic quality to my work with gold leaf. in this series i also introduced silver leaf in the guyana pieces, a reference to the white nights that occurred. as the story goes, you will see other shifts as well, including the absence of any religious imagery. finally, jones is sometimes portrayed in guyana as a tarantula particular to the region. it was my intent to imply a kind of metamorphosis which jones himself was not totally in control of. each piece was subtitled with a guyanese proverb i found appropriate. sometimes the proverb is directly related to the piece, other times it is more ironic.

INDIANA****

AS A MAN THINKETH “vex nah gat plaster fuh passion” , a more general image and the titular piece of the show. The skull with thorns coming out, which unwitting birds have set upon.

THE BURIAL “if dutty ah deh ah roof tap, yuh barrel ah catch am”, jones is portrayed as a child, preaching over the burial of a family pet. while jones is bathed in heavenly light, a klan member (possibly his father) sits in shadows.

FEEDING PIGEONS “nah all who guh a church house ah guh fuh pray”, another general piece, this one deals with bringing food, spiritual and otherwise, to “pigeons,” a vernacular for an unaware individual. this piece is mainly about the practice of leading folks into religious movements with the promise of material gain.

THE LION AND THE LAMBS “cow deh a pasture he nah remember seh dog and butcher deh till he see am”, a play on the lion lying down with the lamb, utilizing the growth symbol of flowers.

DEATH TREE “nah mind how pumpkin vine run, he must dry up one day”, a general image of a tree rooted in death, which looks strong enough, but may not last long.

CAT A KETCH RAT “ cat a ketch rat, but he a teef his massa fish”, a general image of some of the motifs of the show. man, mortality, growth of flowers and threat of thorns. this quote seemed particularly suited to the show.

THE PEACOCK “mouth cut trousers nah a fit massa”, an image which to me recalled father divine, jones supposed mentor.

THE SAFE “one, one dutty build dam”, an older woman signing over the deed to her home to help contribute to the community in return for its support.

HEALER “de looks ah de pudding is not de taste”, two individuals contemplate jones faith healing. apparitions of the skull observer and the chicken who just lost its innards look on as well.

ESQUIRE “when mattie’s house afire trow watah upon you’un”, jim with the esquire magazine which supposedly foretold nuclear destruction of his base in indiana. here, he has a magic picture window which can reveal his vision to his students, and a globe which directs them to ukiah.

Art by Andrew Brandou

COME TO FATHER “nah because dog a play whit yuh he nah bite yuh” jim is portrayed as father, rescuing a child from threats both real and imagine. here in the upper right is also the bird eating a tarantula from guyana, a premonition of whats to come.

ESCAPE TO UKIAH “lil finger point to de big thumb and sey nah guh”, the group flee to california, assured destruction has been avoided.

CALIFORNIA****

BANNERS “if yuh nah get wing, nah a guh a bird sport”, arrival in the redwoods, with banners representing the positive and negative aspects, as well as them both combined.

INTO THE WOODS “nah put all two foot in river if yuh want see how he deep”, entering the colorful woods observed by the enigmatic skull.

WELCOME TO UKIAH “all skin teeth nah laugh”, here the group is being welcomed to their new home, through a doorway representing the destructive forces of racism and nuclear war.

WATERING HOLE “nah every crab hole get crab”, here is a baptism scene, which is also a scene of recording and documentation. the title refers to the fact that “everyone was welcome” while the proverb reminds us that things are not always as expected.

MASKS “nah every big head get sense”, a group of women helping jim make his masks, referring to his claims of being hitler, stalin and buddha.

KEY TO THE CITY “nobody want dutty powder”, this was based on a painting by ben shahn. here we find jim outside the temple with a large banquet of people with banners proclaiming his good works. a prominent business man is offering him the key to the city. meanwhile a child notices something wrong, and attempts to point out the blood dripping from the temple…

BOXING “whah hurt eye does mek nose run water”, the proverb tells us that when one member of a family is hurt, all others feel it. this image represents the brutal discipline used at peoples temple to keep everyone in line. here, jims thorns have become golden, and the life symbol is draped like garlands over a voyeuristic skull.

SEX “every best friend get a next best friend”, the use of sexual taboo, and the subsequent revealing of that taboo in front of the group is portrayed here, as jim performs in front of the group. backstage, two skulls also observe.

JIM’S RIVER “slow fire ah boil hard cow-heel”, this proverb tells us that great accomplishments come through perseverance. at this point in the series, jones has decided to leave california and take as many as he can with him to establish the jonestown agricultural project. part of his ability to convince people to go with him came from their own belief that all of their hard work and challenges were going to add up to something incredible.

GUYANA****

RADIOS “bush got ears, and dutty got tongue”, upon entering guyana, jim already had a ham radio network communicating with the home base in northern california. ham radio operators are a pretty strict bunch however, so soon the fcc was monitoring his operation. even though jonestown communicated with an elaborate code system, they were often cited for violating laws about international/interstate communication. this did nothing but feed into and validate jims persecution complex.

RUNAWAYS “every bush a man night time”, an attempt to capture both the torrential rains in jonestown, and the overwhelming death machine that jones had become. through drugs, paranoia, and sometimes legitimate fear of persecution, jones has changed into the tarantula, specifically, the guyanese bird eater, a red haired tarantula that is as big as a dinner plate and has the ability to expel his poisonous hairs through the air to numb an attacker before devouring it.

LISTENING “rain ah fall on roof yuh put barrel fuh ketch am”, representing the guards looking for people attempting to flee jonestown. whether real or imagined, they held many wannabe escapees at bay.

JUNGLE CRUISE “when yuh buy ah dutty calico yuh gat fuh wear am till it tear”, this is a play on the jungle cruise ride at disneyland (the happiest place on earth) mixed with deborah laytons account of traveling to jonestown via river.

CUDJOE “when yuh deh in bad luck wet paper self ah cut yah”, a close up of the jungle cruise, emphasizing the irony of the boats name cudjoe. according to wikipedia “ Cudjoe Lewis (born circa 1840) is considered the last person born on African soil to have been enslaved in the US.”

FATHER’S VOICE “some pork-knockers does only clear track fuh monkey run race”, represents the constant reinforcement of jones message through constant repetition even in the work fields. note that his voice is now that of the tarantula, and is silver, representing the white nights.

RYAN’S SHOW “ every rope got two ends”, leo ryan and his entourage enjoyed the show they witnessed at first, and were forced to confront “counter-revolutionaries” who wished to leave, then it became a facade.

PORT KAITUMA “orange yellow but yah nah know if he sweet”, here is my attempt to show a graphic moment without being graphic. seen from the POV of a frightened person, a driver with “a thousand mile stare” has come upon one of the planes attempting to leave port kaituma. a skull, representing mortality, looks on from his trailer.

THE NOTE “only knife ah know whah in pumpkin belly” another ben shahn reference, this time relating to fishermen affected by nuclear bomb tests outside of bikini. in this instance, the text is based on the last note written by one of jones confidants, possibly his wife. the striking thing about the note was that for all the death around her, it begins with a paragraph about all the live things, from puppies to kittens, to birds on a wire. subtly you will find an apparition of jones, in the form of a tarantula pushing her towards the thorn motif.

MEDICATION “ when yuh dead yuh nah sabee, and when yah sabee yuh dead”, this is a somewhat obvious moment that needed representation. it became the image announcing my show and incorporated into a giveaway item. this is perhaps the most lurid image in the show, and i hope to have shown discretion.

the wood i gathered was never used to paint on. i tried to find perfect images for it, but the wood itself felt more important each time. looking at a photograph of jim in his chair, with the “those who do not remember history” sign, i realized how to turn it into a visceral experience. i used the wood to construct an overblown version of the chair, at life size. this was placed upstairs in the gallery, so people could arrive at an installation, separate from the rest of the show and actually sit in “the throne.” there they were told the origins of the wood, and were offered a polaroid picture of themselves. this referenced the 70s polaroid technology, the jones references to santa, and each photo kept the full quote in it to hopefully resonate for some time.

*****

in the end, though, that is only 3/5 the jonestown story, ending before the discovery, transportation, and ultimate burial of the victims of tragedy. It also ends before the surviving members and their families have all told their own stories. hopefully readers of the jonestown report can act as a vehicle to bring those stories to light.

(Andrew Brandou lived in Michigan for 18 years until he went to
California to study at the Otis/Parsons School of Design as an illustration major in 1986. He has worked as an illustrator and in the animation industry since 1990.
All the images in this story are on display at his website, http://andrewbrandou.com/. “as a man thinketh, so he is” appeared in April 2007 at the Corey/Helford gallery in Culver City, California. He may be reached at meowdy@pacbell.net.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 3rd, 2014.
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