Artistic talent leads woman to Christian ministry

Published 5:00 am Friday, May 9, 2008

In the 12 years since she first became a painter, FranklinCounty’s Melba Jones has grown her artwork into a Christianministry.

The ministry does not come from her ability to paint landscapesor animals with oils, pastels and colored pencils. Jones’ ministrycomes from her portraits – portraits of the dead. Portraits of deadchildren, specifically.

She has painted four portraits of deceased children throughouther painting career – most killed untimely, as in car accidents.She paints their portraits for free and presents the finishedproducts to the families of the deceased, who, so far, have allreceived the artistic reminders of their lost with greatthanks.

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Jones accepts no payment for these portraits, and insists thattheir creation is directed by God – she becomes His tool forconsoling those that grieve.

“It’s just a sense of satisfaction that you’ve done somethingthat blesses (the families), and it blesses me that God is able touse me in that respect,” Jones said.

Even when families offer to pay Jones for the work, she directsthem to the church.

“I wasn’t getting anything out of it, and in my heart I wasdoing it for God,” she said. “When people wanted to pay me, I askedthem instead to donate to the church – to the sanctuary fund or themission field.”

Jones’ ministry has its roots in the very beginnings of herjourney as a painter. Her first painting was a step-by-step bookthat told her how to mix the paint and how to apply it – a verynovice beginning. She began attending workshops and joiningestablished painters in their studios to soak up theirknowledge.

She was still quite new to the practice, however, when she beganto paint her first portrait of a deceased child – a teenaged girlkilled in a car accident near Arlington Baptist Church in LincolnCounty. Jones felt that she was not skilled enough to undertake thechallenge, but God would not let her rest, she said.

“I felt the Lord kind of leading me to paint her,” Jones said.”I struggled with it for about four months – I didn’t have any ideaabout how to even get started. I had never painted a portrait in mylife – I was new to painting. But it kept coming back to my mind. Ikept getting the urge.”

Jones said she joined an experienced painter to assist her inthe portrait, but she was still struggling. She stopped the work,left her associate and went home to start the painting over on anew canvas, alone.

“It was like God was saying, ‘No, it’s just going to be you andme,'” Jones said. “I started all over with a new canvas andcontinued to struggle.”

Working from a small photo of the deceased brought to hersecretly by a family friend, Jones completed the portrait over thenext five months. When it was over, she went with uncertainty todeliver the portrait to the family in 2001.

“I was real nervous,” Jones said. “I was afraid I would beconjuring up all this hurt for the family all over again. I didn’teven know if it would look like the girl or not. When I knocked onthe door, I was so nervous I couldn’t say anything – all I could dowas hold the painting up.”

The portrait was a success, Jones said, and the family receivedit with wet-eyed appreciation.

Even after her initial success, Jones said she was still unsureof her ability to paint portraits. She continued to paint, however,and upon completing a portrait of her granddaughter, she wasaffirmed. But the affirmation was not of her own doing, shesaid.

“I felt like the Lord had just kind of rewarded me for taking astep of faith,” Jones said.

Confident of her artistic skills, Jones continued painting onher own, remained ever-mindful of God’s call. And the callcame.

Over the next few years, Jones painted the portraits of a Kansasboy killed by carbon monoxide poisoning and that of a 3-year-oldboy from Roxie who was struck by a car in his own driveway. Whileit normally takes her around six months to complete a portrait, shefinished the 3-year-old in less than two days – proof, Jones said,of God’s direction of her work.

For the future, Jones has already targeted her next subject – arecently deceased barrel racer she knows through her joining of theequine world. How she selects her subjects is complicated, Jonessaid, but all of her portraits will have one important quality: theability to make a difference in someone’s life.

“It’s hard to explain sometimes, but I know when God is leadingme,” she said. “You feel a tugging in your heart, and it’ll be thiskind of nagging. I can’t paint every child that passes away, butthere’s just certain circumstances that really touch my heart and Iknow God wants me to do it. That’s what the whole thing is – toshow people that God loves them.”

Over the years, Jones has grown in her field – she has art ondisplay in San Francisco, Calif., and has accumulated two yearsworth of commission work. She has achieved all of this with noformal art training – she paints some of her pieces upside down,humoring her more-established painter friends – but with the helpof the Almighty, she said.

And while she grows in the painting world, Jones said she willnever miss the opportunity to paint a God-directed portrait for agrieving family. The task is, she admitted, a difficult one.

After closely studying a subject’s features and listening totheir parents describe them, a connection develops, she said.

“You get to where you feel like you know that person,” Jonessaid. “You know ever arch of their face, every dimple, their eyes -you know every little part of them by the time you get throughpainting them. It’s like there’s some kind of kinship. It’s astrange feeling – you feel like you might have a part of them withyou.”

Part of the children are with Jones, and she is currentlysharing portions of their memory with Brookhaven. Her artwork is onexhibit from now until the end of May at the Lincoln County PublicLibrary, with a reception planned for Thursday, May 15, from 4until to 6 p.m.