Natalie Barkley Brown Jones is petite and has an elegant bearing; her soft, modulated intonation belies the strength and perseverance essential to her journey through the multi-faceted worlds she has inhabited. She has faced a vortex of challenges and has achieved goals once considered unattainable in an era when women were meant to be wives and mothers to the exclusion of anything else; she grew up constrained not only by society’s racial strictures but by deeply held religious and family traditions. “A woman is to be a complement to her husband,” was an oft-repeated mantra.
A delicacy of compassion and empathy toward her fellow beings has always been an underlying ethical component of Natalie’s life, from the early years in the 1960s and 1970s as the wife of the distinguished Reverend William A. Jones Jr., pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, raising their four children, to becoming Arts Administrator for AT&T, managing one of the largest, most diverse corporate art collections in the country. Her involvement with visual arts continued post-retirement when she worked from 2004 to 2009 for the Brooklyn Arts Council’s Literacy Arts Programs to increase literacy in Brooklyn public schools, and for the past twelve years as an assistant working at the June Kelly Gallery, in Soho, New York City.
Despite a whirlwind of professional activity, Natalie has always found the time to fulfill her own passion to draw, paint, or write children’s stories, often based on her childhood growing up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky where the family lived above her father’s portrait photography studio. Although her father was a college graduate, because of segregation he found no classes or mentors to help hone his craft, so he taught himself, exhibiting a resilience and fortitude that his daughter inherited.
When she was 18 years old, Natalie married a Southern Baptist Minister whom she describes as a “fearless civil rights activist who later marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the Birmingham and Selma protests, and helped to register Mississippi voters during the time when Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered.” During these periods of intense anxiety, Natalie stayed home with the children, acutely aware of the danger and hatred scorching the country. “I was scared stiff whenever he went away, slept with my two children . . . huddled together in my bed. It could be days before I knew his welfare.” The difficulty of communicating over the phone with her husband at a crucial time in American history galvanized Natalie into a period of fertile work, art being a source of courage and a way of working through her angst. She would go downstairs in the middle of the night and begin to draw and paint, wrapping herself tightly in a cocoon of beauty, allowing the art process to express both the exhilaration and bewilderment of the unknown.
STRANGE FRUIT (ca. 1964–1968) is a mixed-media painting that penetrates the underbelly of the nation’s psyche where evil is rooted in a boiling caldron of malevolence. The title comes from Billie Holiday’s song—“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”—Sand is clinging to the all-white “hanging tree,” applied like a bandaged dressing for the weeping wounds of the lynched young men dangling from its branches.
SHE WHO WAS THE PREACHER’S ONCE—YOUNG BRIDE (1975) depicts a woman whose features are an amalgam of three generations—Natalie, her mother, and her maternal grandmother—a female line of descendants looking through a generational window to the ascending rows of church pews, a gentle breeze blowing a diaphanous curtain of changes from the past into the present.