Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Prison time helped artist find clarity

Jacob Johns poses for a photo Thursday with a selection of his artwork  at McCarthy Art Company in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Jennifer Larue

At 17, Jacob Johns held the lifeless body of his younger brother in his arms, trying to revive him.

His brother’s suicide left Johns feeling helpless and he stepped onto a reckless path.

While driving drunk on his way home to the reservation, Johns, who grew up in Mesa, Arizona, ignored the police as they attempted to stop him. The high- speed chase ended when he hit a police car.

Charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on an officer, Johns was sentenced to a maximum security prison for eight years. “I was in ‘the hole’ a lot,” he said, “Where I had no other company but my own.”

For much of his time in prison, Johns conversed with himself through prayer, meditation, writing, drawing and painting and reading.

“In retrospect, my time in prison wasn’t so bad,” he said. “It gave me a lot of time to find clarity.” In his cell, he wrote a book called “The Good Path,” parts of which he sent to his mother who transcribed it to a website (

He was released from prison in 2010. “I chose to be paroled in Spokane where my mother was living,” he said.

With tribal funding, Johns got a degree in cosmetology from the Glen Dow Academy of Hair Design. He then opened a business, giving residents of an assisted living facility free haircuts in exchange for a discount on his salon’s rent within the facility. He lost money but learned a lot.

In 2012, he gave haircuts and displayed his art at the Spokane Falls Indian Encampment Powwow where he was offered a solo exhibit at University of Washington’s School of Social Work. The successful show hung for two months and Johns has been gaining momentum ever since.

He has painted live at events including Terrain and exhibited his work at a half dozen venues including an all Native show at Hatch Gallery. He was in a recent episode of “Z Nation” and he helps organize social justice and awareness rallies like a recent Global Climate Rally in Spokane.

Johns’ motivation is simply to make the world a better place.

“As an artist I believe it is our duty to shift perception. We are given the ability to change a paradigm without the use of words. We can act as a conceptual designer for a message of clarity, in a world that is becoming more and more chaotic. The best way for me to convey a message of unity among humanity is to focus on a simple concept; there is only light and we are all different rays of that same light,” he said.

His work reflects that in a mix of mediums, representing the old and the new, communities and cosmos, light and dark, figures and faces, and redemption.