To better get to know your community, meet the local artists who make up its tapestry of art and design. Each month, DESTINATION TAMPA BAY introduces readers to these creative ambassadors in its monthly artist spotlight. This month, meet a talented young artist who hails from Trinidad and brings a unique perspective to art across multiple mediums and materials that has already carried her work across the pages of not one but two national magazines. The spotlight shines on Nneka Jones.
At the heart of Nneka Jones’ art is her love of storytelling. The 26-year-old Trinidad native is garnering attention for her unique perspective and eclectic blend of art mediums. Much of her work reflects her skill at depicting the beauty and honesty of real people and the influences during her childhood growing up in Trinidad with its rich, robust culture. “Trinidad is a melting pot of many different ethnicities, cultures, and races,” Jones says. “So many of my pieces included bright colors, flora and fauna, and portraits.”
Jones, the youngest of four children, says she explored her creativity as early as five years old through painting, drawing, and sculpting, and often the subjects of the art were women and celebrated Caribbean figures. “My family was always very supportive and would purchase coloring books, blank sketch books, and colored pencils and markers, so it created an environment where my creativity could thrive.” An example of the influence of early years in Trinidad is on display in “Afro-Caribbean Modern Emancipation.” Jones painted the acrylic piece in 2016 and says it represents the accomplishments of the modern-day woman and the strength, beauty, and femininity that women have developed over the years, particularly Afro-Caribbean women.
The young artist took a leap of faith in 2016 and placed first in the Caribbean for Art and Design Examinations. This award and its accompanying scholarship encouraged her to make the tough choice to pursue her art education in the United States. “As much as I loved my culture, I knew that by exploring life beyond the Caribbean, this would increase my exposure to other cultures and more contemporary artists and art styles,” she says. Jones enrolled at the University of Tampa and graduated with her Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and a minor in marketing in May 2020.
Since then, she has developed her skills at creating original pieces across a broad range of art mediums including embroidery, paint, photography, and mixed media. “Each medium creates a unique form of expression and a delicate work of art for the viewer to explore,” Jones says. One unexpected art opportunity came her way in 2020. After missing a chance to walk in her graduation due to the pandemic, she decided to begin posting her work online and build a social media presence. TIME Magazine art director Victor Williams discovered her work. “Victor came across my embroidery work on Instagram and at first thought that they were all paintings,” Jones recalls. “After seeing some of the hanging thread and taking a closer look, he quickly realized the detail was in fact hand-embroidered and reached out to me to create a unique work of art for TIME.”
The unique art piece appeared as the cover of a special August 31/September 7, 2020, issue “The New American Revolution”, curated by musician, songwriter, and producer Pharrell Williams. Jones’ original work captured a pivotal moment in history, a time of social unrest and chaos, as she created an American flag unraveled and torn but still intact. “The hand-embroidered American flag at the time served as a symbol of change, work in progress, and unity to help advocate for a different narrative that involved everyone regardless of their background,” she says.
The Washington Post’s art director next noticed Jones’ work on Instagram and commissioned the artist to produce an oil painting of Kamala Harris, who would become the first female Vice President in American history. “I was extremely grateful for the opportunity from The Washington Post,” Jones says. “This was such an important moment in history for women, and I was happy to use my artwork to capture this.”
She continues to get opportunities to display her work on both local and national levels. In spring 2022, the Gasparilla Art Festival (GFA) declared Jones winner of Best of Show for her piece “Modern Renaissance,” which uses a punch-needle embroidery technique.
I am often inspired by the topics that are deemed taboo or most times, ignored in society. My work highlights real people,” Jones says. “For me, portraiture inspires a contemporary perspective on storytelling, and as humans, we do not realize how much our faces and eyes can communicate a story without saying a word.”(LEFT:Modern Renaissance by Nneka Jones, winner of 2022 GFA Best of Show)
Jones had participated in the GFA since her first public art showing in 2018, earning a spot at the festival as an Emerging Artist as well as placing third and second place prior to her first place showing. “It’s only fitting that Nneka won this award,” said GFA President Jamie Jenkins following the announcement. “Her tenured success at the festival proves positive that our community embraces a diverse and eclectic group of artists and fosters a community who supports one another year after year.”
Also in 2022, Jones was one of nine Bay area artists selected to take part in Clearly Collaborative, a unique, joint art exhibition between Florida CraftArt and Duncan McClellan Gallery. Each artist chosen gets an opportunity to participate in an art residence learning directly from acclaimed glass artist Duncan McLellan. Final pieces from the collaboration will comprise an exhibit to open January 2023. (Click here to read more about the Clearly Collaborative multimedia art project.)
“Learning more about the group of artists and of course, Duncan’s work, I knew that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity for me that I could not pass up,” she says. “Duncan was one of my mentors in the Gasparilla Festival of Arts many years ago, so to be collaborating with him is surreal…he never hesitates to provide insight on different techniques and resources that will create a quality work of art and experience for you, the artist, and art buyers and lovers.”
The artist says she is always eager to explore new media and experiment in the arts, such as glass art which she had never worked with before and is enjoying the chance through the collaborative. She enjoys working across multiple mediums whether it’s a large-scale mural or a smaller more intimate piece, and frequently weaves mixed media, paint, photography, textiles, embroidery, and more into her art because selecting just one can be so difficult. “I often lean toward embroidery mainly because of the shock factor and length of time the viewers stand in front of the artwork. Over the last few years of hand sewing portraits, I noticed a pattern of one small intricate embroidered portrait pooling a large crowd of viewers and admirers together, almost like an army in awe.”
Her hand embroidery artwork is on display in the pages of Colossal magazine, Embroidery Mag UK, Domestika and at The American Craft Council website, and has become part of permanent art collections at the Florida CraftArt Gallery, Ferman Art Center and Tampa Museum of Art. Her series QR Code Series, on display at Tampa Museum of Art, features three contemporary paintings which include her distinctive hand-embroidery to create textures. She says her use of portraiture here aims to deliver a message of entitlement, consent, and identity. The series employs female figure outlines contrasted with geometric shapes to create a unique QR code but that if visitors attempt to scan, they will not be able to obtain information about the women without first getting consent. Such strong messaging of female empowerment and social activism are central to many of her pieces.
Jones has also made a name for herself as a voice of a new generation of artist, one that isn’t afraid to pair up activism and art and combine elements of various mediums into one conceptual design. In October 2020, Adobe asked her to serve as keynote speaker for Adobe MAX, where she spoke on the importance of art as a vehicle for activism. She will also be this year’s keynote speaker for the annual New York State Art Teachers Association Conference.
She has become a sought-after participant for community murals, as well. In fact, she has recently received several new requests from across the country to take part in large-scale mural projects and has two which she is preparing for as the year closes, one of them here in the Bay area. Jones previously took part in the 2020 SHINE Mural Festival, partnering with Bianca Burrows.
The mural titled “The Global Currency” is located on the Goodyear Rubber Products building located at 1957 1st Ave. S. in St. Petersburg. Jones will participate in the 2022 SHINE Mural Festival October 14-22, 2022, with her newest local mural to be on display on the Childs Park Recreation Center at 4301 13th Ave. S. in St. Pete. (For more information about the upcoming SHINE event, click here.)
For those interested in seeing more of Jones’ work, visit the artist’s website by clicking here. To connect with the artist or find out about her latest events, visit Jones’ pages on Facebook and Instagram.
by Chris Kuhn written exclusively for Destination Tampa Bay™. All photos courtesy of artist Nneka Jones, unless otherwise noted for editorial purposes only–all rights reserved.