MONROE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX, Wash. — Trevor Jones stands from his bunk in the Monroe Correctional Complex and peels off his shirt to reveal the word “Kosher” tattooed across his back in huge, black lettering — a tribute to his distant Jewish heritage. He smiles behind a bushy beard and says, “I learned how to draw so I could design my own tattoos.”
If you type studiobehindthefence.com into your search engine, Jones’ webpage comes up. On it, you’ll see portraits, paintings and drawings which have been featured in art shows, become permanent displays in museums, and have been printed onto handbags and sold online. Every one of them was created inside one of many steel and brick cages which have served as home to the artist over the past 10-and-a-half years. But what’s most remarkable is that he’s only been creating for seven of them.
Once he’s slipped back into his T-shirt, Jones retakes his seat and proceeds to share his thoughts on life, art, and the future with The News Station.
“There wasn’t anything extraordinary about my childhood,” he claims. “My mom and dad were married for the first part of it, and I spent a lot of time in the woods.”
Born in Bellevue, Washington, in 1991, Jones describes his early life as “uneventful” until his parents divorced when he was in the third grade. After that, he bounced back and forth between their two homes for a while.
“When I was a teen,” he recalls, “I started hanging out with different people, stealing cars, and selling drugs. I was smoking weed, and next thing you know, I was stealing alcohol, too. I would sneak out to go to house parties and raves, where we would do ecstasy, and we had a little clubhouse type thing where everyone went, so I spent a lot of time there.”
In 2011, he engaged in an act that would determine where he would spend his next dozen years.
In his words: “We were at a dope house, and a homegirl told me a dude downstairs tried to rape her, so I went down there and tried to kill him. I failed but was charged with assault in the first degree and robbery. They sentenced me to a hundred-and-eighty-three months, with a deadly weapon enhancement because a knife was used.”
His first stop in the penal system was the notorious state penitentiary in Walla Walla. A century-and-a-half old and best known for rape and gang violence, Walla Walla’s prison has been the subject of many books, including Concrete Mama and Unusual Punishment.
“I was terrified at first, but some old cats ended up looking out for me, and I was only there a year,” he said.
Once he was promoted to a custody level for good behavior, he was transferred to Stafford Creek Correctional Center for a year, and then Coyote Ridge in eastern Washington. It was there that his creative juices began to stir.
One day, while sitting at a wooden table, he arranged a few random objects — a piece of paper, an electronic tablet, a mechanical pencil — and attempted to draw the scene. It came out not only detailed, but surprisingly accurate. He didn’t think much of it but sent it home in a letter to his mom and stepdad, who pointed out that he might just have unearthed a hidden talent and encouraged him to pursue it.
In prison, portraits are a profitable racket for artists who can replicate human likenesses. Washington state prisoner jobs pay around 40 cents per hour (which comes out to about 55 dollars a month once the Department of Corrections (DOC) has taken its deductions.) A good artist can more than quadruple that on a weekly basis.
Jones, determined to master the craft of drawing people, did human portraits almost exclusively for about two years. In the beginning, he charged 10 dollars apiece to recreate photos of his neighbors’ loved ones. When he stopped, his rate had gone up to a hundred dollars, and he’d been to segregation several times for infractions related to tattooing.
His right arm is covered in ink. A screaming skull rests low near his elbow, while the rest are images of clowns — including a maniacal-faced jester that covers his triceps. One forearm says, “Wild,” the other, “Card.” “Jones” is written in graffiti, and one of his fingers has a diamond-shaped Superman emblem with the letters “SV” in it.
“It stands for supervillain,” he explains, “in commemoration of my homegirl, who was murdered and found in a clothing donation bin at Fred Meyer.”
His favorite tattoo, however, is a tiny human heart drawn on another finger. He claims, with pride, that it’s anatomically accurate, copied from a medical book.
Eventually, Jones was transferred to the Monroe Correctional Complex, where he focused more on animal portraits and learning to use color. He sent his work out to his mom, who, believing it was worthy of sharing with the world, built him a website and began submitting it for shows.
His piece, “The Crossing,” was featured at The Art Escape at Alcatraz in 2017.
“We donated that piece to an organization called Prison Art Touching Hearts (PATH),” he says, “and it was sent to the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and made a permanent display there.”
His series, “Interpretations of the Hebrew Alphabet,” which he plans to assemble into a book, has appeared at shows between 2016 and 2019 and was set for others before COVID shut down the world. It consists of 22 pieces, each an artistic and colorful rendition of a separate Hebrew letter.
A stroll down any tier in any prison in the nation will reveal at least one visual artist — likely more — sitting at a small metal desk, shading or coloring an image he or she’s been commissioned by a neighbor to create. During the holiday season, hand-drawn Christmas cards go on display behind cell bars. Depending on the quality, they could sell for anywhere between five and 10 dollars apiece, purchasable with food items from the prison commissary.
Trevor Jones, however, is cut from a different cloth. Rather than focusing on short-term gratification like ramens and chips, he’s built his craft into a fully functional business, recognized and respected by the outside art community. Studio Behind the Fence’s model is simple. Because Washington prisoners are restricted from accessing the internet, his mom, who is co-owner, manages the webpage, receives requests, and then forwards them to Trevor. He does the work and sends it to her to be shipped to the customers. His site also has ready-made pieces available for purchase.
But it isn’t money that drives a true creator. For most of us, artistic expression is the only thing that keeps us sane, and during the course of his interview, it’s become clear that Trevor Jones is no exception.
“I have pretty significant anxiety issues,” he says. “My mind goes a million miles an hour, so if I don’t have something to focus on, I have panic attacks. The act of making a portrait, with the different amounts of pressure, the different shading and stroking, and blending it all together is hypnotic. If I’m feeling manic, I start drawing or painting, and it makes it go away.”
He’ll be released in 2025, and plans to hit the ground running.
“When I get to the streets, I’ll have access to better stuff,” he asserts. “So I want to get more into painting than drawing, and if I don’t have my Hebrew alphabet book published yet, I’ll be able to contact publishers myself. I’ll definitely do more shows and festivals.”