Published: October 19, 2010
Textile designer, teacher and painter, Lois Mailou Jones (1905‱998) was one of the finest American artists of the late Twentieth Century. An African American, she persevered through racial and gender discrimination to carve out an outstanding career as both a gifted educator and artist of exceptional talent.
Combining academic skills with African and later Haitian motifs, Jones created images that convey a love of life, compassion for others, passion for social justice and a deep sense of color and composition. Over the course of her long career, she documented the streets of Paris and Port-au-Prince and the scenery of Cape Cod, portrayed students and friends, participated in the Harlem Renaissance, recorded the Jim Crow years and the Civil Rights movement, and depicted African independence.
In spite of all these accomplishments, Jones never received the full recognition she deserved during her lifetime. A traveling exhibition, organized by the Mint Museum and its curator of contemporary art Carla M. Hanzal, should help correct that injustice.
Already seen at the Mint Museum and Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Fla., “Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color” is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through January 9. Its national tour is organized by International Arts & Artists of Washington, D.C. Included are more than 70 paintings, drawings and textile designs.
Jones was born into a middle-class Boston family and grew up spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where her parents owned a home. Inspired by the island’s bright colors, she began painting in watercolor, which she called “my pet medium.”
After attending Boston’s High School of Practical Arts, Jones apprenticed with a costume and stage designer. Enrolling at the School of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts as a design major, she won awards for dress designs and honed her skills in drawing the human figure.
Jones’s early designs for cretonne drapery fabric, filled with color and intricate patterns, suggest that she could have achieved great success had she pursued a career in design. They demonstrate, according to art curator Lowery Stokes Sims in the catalog, “that Jones was capable of an adventurousness in form, a visual cacophony and compositional formats in her designs that indicate an awareness of Modernist conventions.”
Spurred by advice to go to the South to “help her people,” Jones taught for a year at a prep school in North Carolina, where she coached the women’s basketball team and started the art department. On the side, she produced evocative watercolors of local homesteads and a view of a mother and daughter sitting outside a tree-shaded home, “Sedalia, North Carolina,” which hinted at future achievements. These early works, notes Sims, “are Realist with a Regionalist character and [with] modulated earth tones&”
In 1930, Jones was recruited to teach at Howard University in Washington, the nation’s premier black institution of higher learning. The position offered security and the opportunity to create an important training ground for black visual artists. Jones taught at Howard for 47 years, inspiring generations of students that included artists Elizabeth Catlett and artist/educator David Driskell.
To keep up with the changing artistic world, Jones consistently sought out new ideas and concepts in order to broaden her students’ horizons. “With this methodology of teaching,” says her Howard colleague Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, “she benefited, and&rew as an artist, always fresh in her outlook and application& This kept Lois Jones young, and imparted a freshness that is observed in her work, whether it is in oil, acrylic, watercolor or collage.”
Traveling to Paris in 1937 to study at the Académie Julian, Jones found a city free of color barriers. She was befriended by flamboyant performer Josephine Baker and encouraged by painter Emile Bernard and passersby who watched her at work outdoors. Their words of praise were “inspiring,” she recalled. “The color of my skin didn’t matter in Paris and I&egan to really think I was talented.”
Years later, Jones reminisced about having a “dream studio” in Paris, the excitement of viewing the City of Light and the opportunity to show her work “purely on merit” at galleries. “To walk through those galleries and see my work exhibited with the works of artists from all over the world was an experience which was really the making of me as an artist,” she recalled.
Captivated by views along the Seine and street scenes, Jones created colorful watercolors in the tradition of Paul Cezanne, including “Marche aux Puces Rue Medard, Paris,” and a domestic oil à la Mary Cassatt, “La Mere, Paris,” both in 1938. She returned to France frequently thereafter.
Things were different back in Washington, where she had to resort to subterfuges to enter art competitions from which African Americans were barred. Throughout her life, she retained a sunny, generous and outgoing personality that won her a legion of friends and admirers in all walks of life.
At Howard, Jones was influenced by the views of philosophy professor Alain Locke, who urged black artists to reflect their African roots in their work. As early as 1932 she painted a striking oil, “The Ascent of Ethiopia,” in which she invoked recognizable African imagery to accompany representation of the rise of a “New Negro” consciousness, in the form of African American art, drama and music.
“Pyramids and a pharaonic face represent the old Africa,” writes Edmund Barry Gaither, executive director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, in the catalog, “while Afro-America is evoked as a modern city with all its entertainments. A stair that suggests ascent and progress links the two worlds. Above, the sun and the city lights balance one another as icons of energy and enlightenment.” One of the first African American paintings to successfully incorporate African motifs, “Ethiopia” celebrated the artist’s racial pride and the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance.
While under the spell of Cubism in Paris in 1938, Jones juxtaposed five African masks, a white pendant charm and a standing red figure in “La Fetiches.” The masks, drawn from different African tribes, are consistent with Jones’s observation that, “Oftimes I combine motifs from various regions in Africa, which results in a composition which tends to unify Africa.” Growing out of her study of African masks and ritualistic objects and recognition of her own roots, “Les Fetiches” symbolizes the spirit and meaning of Jones’s ancestry.
Some of her most sensitive work was done in portraiture, ranging from students to elegantly dressed women to working-class men. Jones “was trying to place the black subject in a context that was very much a source of pride †she didn’t want to portray the stereotypical images or anything that referenced them in a demeaning manner,” says Benjamin.
A highlight is “Jennie,” 1943, an empathetic depiction of a dignified young black woman dressed in yellow, modeled by a 14-year-old student, cleaning fish in a well-stocked kitchen. “It conveys,” Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson have written, “this woman’s humanity, dignity and beauty.”
Jones’s most memorable portrait, painted at a time of widespread lynchings and other racial incidents in the South, “Mob Victim (Meditation),” 1944, shows a dignified, prayerful older black man, his hands tied, who is about to be lynched. This “harrowing protest against the waste of black lives,” as Driskell puts it, is a powerful reminder of American racial injustice.
Jones traveled widely, studying and living in different parts of the world, which are reflected in her work. Particularly notable are her paintings of the 1950s onward in which she combined traditional Haitian and African forms with Western techniques to create vibrant and compelling pictures. Reflecting her continuing sense of design, they feature bright fields of color and bands of flat patterns based on indigenous textiles or decorative paintings, along with figurative elements. As Benjamin has written, Jones’s exposure to African and Haitian cultures resulted in a style that “fused abstraction, decorative patterns and naturalism.”
In two stunning acrylics, Jones summarized her response to the symbols, designs and rituals of African culture in “Dahomey,” 1971, and “Ubi Girl from the Tai Region,” 1972. They are at once vital, respectful and colorful.
As art historian Cheryl Finley writes in the catalog, the African mask was “a lifelong muse for the artist.” Finley says that Jones “was enamored with its [an African mask’s] spiritual significance, theatrical expression, cultural importance and emotive possibilities.”
Jones synthesized African masks, textile designs and motifs she observed in the compelling “Symbols d’Afrique 1,” 1980, and honored African motherhood and designs in “Mere du Senegal,” 1985.
In 1953, Jones married Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, and began to spend considerable time in that vibrant but troubled country. Her work became more abstract and hard-edged as she recorded spirited views of Haitian life in a richly patterned, brilliantly colored style. “Gradually,” says Benjamin, “she developed a fresh, energetic and highly individual style more expressive of the exuberance and vigor of Haitian life. Suddenly, there is an implosion of color&”
In works like “Marche, Haiti,” 1963, and “Street Vendors, Port au Prince, Haiti,” 1978, Jones conveyed color-filled activity in the Haitian capitol in a manner reminiscent of the great Jacob Lawrence. The nearly stick-figure principals in “The Water Carriers, Haiti,” 1985, put one in mind of William H. Johnson. Clearly, Jones felt great empathy for the Haitian people and reveled in the exuberance of their street life.
“Jones found a spiritual home in Haiti, where she felt close to Africa,” says Finley. As Jones once said, “The art of Africa is lived in the daily life of Haiti.”
Jones’s final years, during which she continued to travel and paint, were filled with myriad awards, honors and exhibitions. In her 90s, she said she believed her greatest contribution to the art world was “proof of the talent of black artists.” She argued for the importance of African American artists in the history of art, and further expressed the hope that the “time will come when we will no longer need to attach the word ‘black’ to ‘artist.’ Let it be that black artists be referred to as ‘artists’ whose works are accepted universally on the strength of their merits.”
Lois Mailou Jones, outstanding person and painter, died in Washington at the age of 92 and is buried in Oak Bluffs Cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard. Since then, articles and exhibitions have kept her name alive, and there is increasing appreciation for the breadth and depth of her oeuvre. As Gaither observes, “She championed the black artist, but not just through the model of her energy and determination, but through the quality of her work and her teaching.”
So where does Lois Mailou Jones stand in the annals of American art? Gaither calls her “a giant in the history of American art of the Twentieth Century.” Benjamin, pointing out that all the earlier outstanding African American women artists were sculptors, contends Jones has the “distinction as our first major painter in the African American art historical hierarchy.”
The 144-page catalog, fully illustrated with works by Jones and vintage photographs, contains useful essays by Gaither, Sims and Finley, and an insightful interview with Benjamin. Published by the Mint Museum, this book is a valuable supplement to Benjamin’s definitive monograph, The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones , 1994.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts is at 1250 New York Avenue NW. For information, www.nmwa.org or 202-783-5000.
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