Jonathan Kent Adams has always seen life in technicolor.
“He saw beauty and color in everything, almost like he had a kaleidoscope view of life,” his mother, Ann, said about him as a child. “His heart was full of love for everyone.”
And it still is. Ole Miss graduate Adams sees the beauty and love in the world and pursues it. For the parts of the world that aren’t so beautiful, Adams tries his best to make them so.
His younger brother, Balee, said Adams’ love and optimism has encouraged him throughout his life.
“I couldn’t have grown up with a better brother,” Balee said. “He’s there to pick you up and lift you up. You can find beauty within anything as long as you look, and that’s exactly what (Jonathan) does.”
Over time, Adams learned to express his love through art. One of his first pieces was for a grieving mother.
“My mom works in neonatal intensive care. A baby passed away, and I made art for the family and got a thank-you note,” he said. “I realized how art could touch people and had power. Not only that, but art, even though it was playing around, was an escape for me.”
Adams realized how much he needed that escape as the years passed.
Growing up in Yazoo, a few miles outside of Jackson, Adams knew he wasn’t like other boys. He remembered classmates in elementary school who would call him “girly” or “sissy.”
“I knew growing up that I was attracted to guys. I thought that would diminish, I thought everyone had those feelings, and you just eventually became heterosexual,” he said. “I needed to escape from always thinking about being gay and no one understanding.”
As Adams struggled with his sexuality, religion became an increasingly fundamental part of who he was, and intertwined with that was his own assumed sin.
“God became a big part of my life starting in early junior high, and so did noticing my family wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t perfect,” he said. “I thought that even thinking things were sin. It started all of this. It wasn’t self-hate, because I knew to see myself as someone loved because God loved me, but there was this part of me that I closed off. I always felt unknown.”
In high school, Adams helped design the yearbook, sang and played basketball. Art remained in his peripheral vision. It was something he was embarrassed to fully embrace, but when he came to college and took Introduction to Art as an elective, his professor encouraged him to fully pursue art.
As a student, Adams was the kind of person in class who would stay hours afterward. If an assignment deadline was looming, he would be there working past midnight. In his first painting class on campus, the instructor noticed this work ethic and raw talent and pushed Adams to become a painter.
“I noticed that it could heal, but I didn’t really start finding that in myself until college,” he said.
Adams first labeled himself as a gay person while here at Ole Miss. Even though he was beginning to accept his sexuality, he continued to think of himself as a gay person who would never be in a relationship because it seemed impossible.
“The churches I had been to, that was their stance,” he said.
Adams also became very involved in YoungLife, a student-run Christian organization on campus, while in college. He was a leader in the group, but sophomore year, after he told the area director that he was gay, Adams was told to step down as a leader.
“I’ve forgiven him now, but the whole year after that, I was very depressed. If I ever thought I was going to kill myself, it was during that semester,” he said. “All of my friends were in that community. Not all of them agreed with that decision, but to be excommunicated, in a way, was really difficult.”
Adams knew art had power to heal people, but it was during sophomore year that he experienced that healing firsthand. He spent the following summer in New York taking painting classes, and while in the city, he began going to the Catholic church near his dorm.
“I would see a gay couple there. I emailed Sarah Moses, who taught me religion, and asked, ‘Gay people go to church together?’” he said. “That started a journey as seeing myself as someone accepted and loved by God, not someone who had to continue suffering.”
After praying daily for God to take away his sinful thoughts, it was difficult for Adams to rethink his negative view of the gay part of his persona, and it is still something he is learning to do.
“It wasn’t a revelation. I didn’t just think, ‘I’m a happy, gay Christian now.’ I wish it was that easy, being touched by God and having no more struggles,” he said. “I am still learning to love all of me. It’s a journey.
And so is his art. In the beginning, his pieces started out as abstract shapes and initials — things Adams described as “not anything serious.” However, after his struggles sophomore year and coming out to more people afterward, his art became an immediate release for his complicated emotions.
“I look back at that art, and it’s kind of dark. I can look at my color palette and the things I painted and the words I chose to include, and I can see what I was going through,” he said. “I can look through everything I’ve made and see where I’ve been in those moments.”
Adams’ art made a significant shift the moment he met his boyfriend, Blake Summers.
Claire Whitehurst, one of Adams’ peers who encouraged him to pursue art, said, “I remember when he met Blake. A spark was kind of in his eyes. I remember he came up to me and was kind of a little timid and said, ‘I met a boy.’ There was a sense of ease and calm about him that I had never noticed before. That was when his work really started changing and growing and got more expressive.”
As Adams has grown more confident in who he is, his art has become his voice.
“I’m not a great public speaker, that’s not my gift. My gift is storytelling through an image,” he said.
Adams created an installation for a sculpture class exploring the relationship between his religion and his sexuality, a theme he later explored in his thesis show. For this installation, Adams hung his paintings in a blacked-out room around a centerpiece made of a Bible and letters from friends who disagreed with his sexuality.
“There was audio of me singing and playing the piano to God, and I added layers of preachers’ anti-gay sermons,” he said. “People were coming from different parts of campus to see my little undergraduate art installation. It was the first time I saw people relate to my art. They had to think beyond something. When they walked in, they were challenged. I like for my art to do that.”
The conflict between his sexuality and religion is partially why Adams decided to stay in Mississippi to continue his art career. He said if there is any place where his art can challenge people while also making sense, it is certainly in a place like Mississippi.
“It’s a little messed up and needs a little work, but it’s home,” Adams said. “It would be easier to move, but we’re in such an important time in history as far as civil rights. I think it’s important to stay. We’re not all called to be someone trying to make things better, but I feel like I want to do my best.”
Adams has a studio in Water Valley, and on his commutes there from Oxford, he is often struck by the beauty of the world around him. He stops sometimes in the middle of the drive to capture the landscape, which has been inspiring him recently.
“With the election and shootings and everything really, when I get in the car and leave my phone and drive out there, it’s a freedom that I feel is like a prayer to me,” he said. “I’ve just pulled over and painted some paintings on the side of the road. Maybe it’s that when I see those fields, I see the freedom of being a kid and running across the road to the field.”
The most important thing to Adams, both as an artist and a human being, is being present and being honest to himself and to others.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do with my art, allow people a peek in. I want to be honest and truthful about my experience as a gay person, and I hope when I create art, people see that it’s about that,” he said. “Interacting with people and letting them know that you’re gay and that you’re OK with it, even if they’re not OK with it — I’m sure that will affect people over the long term.”
Though Adams is still figuring out how to love himself for who he is, the love he has for his community, his God, his family and his boyfriend is unconditional and unapologetically expressed through his art and his humanity.
“I never thought it was possible to love God and love Blake at the same time, but here I am.”