Photography by: Heidi Autin
The girl in the painting reaches for the sky, one hand rockets above her head, the other at her side. It is reminiscent of the classic Tarot image of “The Magician”, “as above, so below”. The glow that radiates from behind her is curious; it draws the viewer’s thoughts to another realm. There’s something intriguing about the entire concept.
“What’s the story behind this one?” I ask.
“This one is part of the goddess series I’m working on.” He says excitedly.
I am surrounded by the type of familiarity that comes with the longevity of friendship. Strangely enough, in the ten plus years of knowing one another I don’t think we’ve ever talked about his artwork. As we stand around his kitchen table, a handcrafted, distressed wooden piece, we settle into a conversation that is perhaps long overdue. My friend Jon is an artist, but I believe that is only a blanket term for something much more intriguing.
I have spent many an afternoon seated across from Jonathan Dukes while he is in the midst of his artistic flow. His wife, Ashley, and I have been friends for nearly twenty years. I am present in their home more often than I present in my own. The creative process is all very routine for us as a friend group. I have identified that flow state in myself, that melting away that comes with being completely fixated on a task at hand. When he paints, it is as if he is somewhere else. I’m curious about that place in his head. Settling into this interview is odd. It is hard to be serious when there has always been laughter and good humor.
“Ok, I need to ask you about your childhood. Let’s be serious.” I start, still laughing.
“Okay, okay. What do you want to know?”
Of course I want to know about the beginning, the spark that created the fire.
“I feel like I didn’t really think of it as art in my early years, it was just watching cartoons and then trying to draw those cartoons. I started off with stick figures. I was like four or five years old drawing Ninja Turtles and stick figures and then it was about third grade when my friend showed me how to put in muscle and mass.” Instead of an interest in art, it was more of an interest in pop culture and recreating the characters that he admired from his favorite cartoons.
It is at this moment that I realize this love for storytelling is not absent from his present work. It is exactly that type of world building and characterization that makes his art so intriguing. This is made apparent in his hauntingly beautiful landscapes that at first appear familiar but become more distant and bizarre as you observe.
“I like to paint otherworldly things. I feel like a lot of that comes from the fact that I believe there’s other life out there. I’ve had a lot of Star Wars and Star Trek influence in my life. I personally enjoy stories that involve space and involve being on another planet. There’s an action, adventure feel to it. I feel like that’s kind of where some of those otherworldly pictures come from.” This knack for character and story development is also present in the people he paints. His aforementioned goddess series is one of them. If you take a step into his garage you will notice that upon the bare white walls there are sketch marks spanning the entire length of the room. Outlines that he erases and reimagines over and over again creating the images of heroes. He explains them to me, all characters based on people he has known and loved, all pieces of his creative process. One day he will fill them in, or perhaps he will paint over them and rewrite the story.
He is the type of person who has had to rewrite his own story before. As a young teen Jon found himself in trouble at the hands of a harsh justice system.
“I feel like jail was an influence on me because even though it’s a terrible place to be you also have a lot of time to yourself and time to be as creative as you can. You only see the same four walls, the same colors everyday. Doing something different in your own mind kind of helps out.”
It is an ugly and unfortunate piece of his story but it has molded his life experience in a unique way.
“I found a lot of people there that were like-minded when it came to art. I learned a lot from those people. I learned my shading from a guy that did portraits. There were people that created greeting cards and people that did tattoos. People can do amazing things with just pens. No pencil work involved, super resourceful with what they have. Eventually that kind of transitioned me into doing tattoos.” Developing and honing his skills within the confines of the jail system not only helped Jon pass his days but also helped keep him out of trouble.
“I feel like it kept me out of other people’s business. That’s kind of a thing in prison… you don’t want to be in other people’s business. If you stick to yourself—I kind of laugh because…nobody in jail messes with an artist. We stick to ourselves.” He recalls.
Tattoos have been a part of Jon’s vision long before he ever did time.
“I’ve been wanting to be a tattoo artist since I was about 15. My brother-in-law is really the person who peaked my interest in tattoos. He went and got a tattoo done and I was just amazed with the way it looked and how cool it was…I think it was a shark. I think he had a shark done. I was really interested and thought maybe I could do that. And of course he was the type of person that was really supportive and encouraging.”
At 17 Jon secured connections that promised him apprenticeships, but was unable to fulfill them due to his jail sentence. It has been a long, slow-going process to recover from the years lost to the system. It was only just in 2019 that Jon was able to attend tattoo school to better improve his skills.
“It’s funny…tattoo school is really not as well respected as, in my mind, I think it should be. I went to tattoo school and I had a good time and even though it was sketchy as shit, I still had a good time going there and I still learned a lot. It isn’t respected in the tattoo community because they believe that you can’t teach tattooing in a school concept. Because the old structure for tattoo artists is apprenticeship. You’re supposed to trust the person who you’re apprenticing with to teach you everything. That’s just the way they’ve been doing it since the beginning of tattooing.”
But Jon trusts that his art will speak for itself, which is ultimately the goal of the trade. It is a constant, ever-evolving process to become the artist you were meant to be. And Jon feels that his art has not only changed with himself, but with the whole of the art community.
“If I was to go back in years, all the way to when I started…like I said…I started with stick figures. Now I do as close to realism as I possibly can…unless I’m doing something really off the wall then it doesn’t look realistic at all,” he laughs. “My art has gotten better but it’s also changed with the way the world creates art. I feel like when something changes in the art world, every artist changes.”
Much like in other creative fields, the artist is influenced by what is popular. Art begets art and creation fuels creation. It is this ever-going cycle of influencing one another that makes creation so beautiful.
“I feel like that’s how I’ve evolved. I’ve evolved with the times.”
As for his goals, Jon hopes to spend as much time as he can producing more paintings and eventually getting a website going where he can sell prints and merchandise.
“I’d like to get more paintings out there. Honestly. I would like to try…” he drifts off. The idea he shares next is a raw and honest one. It is a moment that all creatives have felt, a yearning for a world that simply values their skills enough for fair compensation. “I want to try to live as an artist.” He nearly laughs. “I think I have the talent to make a profit. But. I enjoy doing it so much that, you know, that it wouldn’t feel like a job to me.” As we wrap up I relinquish the goddess painting back to its rightful owner.
“Will there be more of these?” I ask.
“Yeah! I have this concept, the ‘goddesses of the elements’. This one here is ‘Spirit’; the energy that goes around the cosmos. It’s how I feel that God is. God is energy and God is in us. It’s pretty much the only thing that keeps us going… it’s the energy to go through another day. If there is a God, it’s the energy that passes through everything. That’s how I think it is.” I feel that this is, in essence, the purpose of a creative life. It is the fuel and the fire that gets us through another day.
Jon plans to launch his website later this year. Full links and contacts coming soon to The Elysian Stories.