Lois Mailou Jones: Visionary artist with a global perspective

Herb Boyd | 10/1/2020, midnight
When acclaim is dispensed for African American artists, Lois Mailou Jones, for the more perceptive chroniclers, is usually included, and ...
Lois Mailou Jones

When acclaim is dispensed for African American artists, Lois Mailou Jones, for the more perceptive chroniclers, is usually included, and more than just a footnote. Usually she gets this notable profile because of her gender, and merely as a way to provide some sense of balance. But her accomplishments merit much more than a passing nod or attempt to make sure a Black woman is mentioned.

No matter the publication or encyclopedia on Black artists, Jones warrants a place, and there would be no argument once her paintings are seen and evaluated. She was as phenomenal with the paint brush as she was representing the race in her images and depictions.

Born on Nov. 3, 1905, in Boston, Jones was the daughter of Thomas Vreeland Jones, an attorney, and Carolyn Dorinda Jones, a hairdresser and hat designer. Her mother observed some of Lois’ early drawings and took her to one of her client’s houses where she could see a collection of artistic treasures. Recognizing her daughter’s enthusiasm from the visit, she began coaxing and encouraging her daughter to become an artist.

To this end, Lois attended the Boston National School and studied drawing at the Boston Museum vocational drawing class in the afternoon and on Saturdays. There was also instruction from a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1923, she was awarded a four-year scholarship to the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. After completing her studies here she enrolled at the Designers Art School of Boston. By 1928, she headed south to organize and helm the art Department at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina. As she learned it was an elite school that catered primarily to the more endowed African Americans.

Working and teaching in the South and enduring the discrimination did not appeal to her and after two years she left and took a position in the art department at Howard University, which would be a nearly lifelong association. Along with her success in academia, Lois gained a wide following for her textile designs. From a number of friends and prominent personalities in the world of art and culture, she was convinced to devote more time to her painting, advice she acceded to and that would put her on the way to even greater artistic study and acclaim, including scholarships and grants to study in Paris and Italy by 1937.

Once ensconced in Paris, Lois exclaimed exuberantly, “At last I am living.” This was an expression of her being liberated from the intense racism and bigotry that troubled her life, personally and artistically. And being adopted by some of the country’s most recognized artists and patrons only added to the joy she experienced.

After only a year or so in Europe she was ready to return to the states and celebrate her freshly anointed fame. Her personal life was greatly enhanced by her marriage in 1953 to the Haitian graphic designer Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël who influenced her further as she saw the bright colors and bold patterns of Haitian art on annual trips to her husband’s home. In 1970, Jones was commissioned by the United States Information Agency to serve as a cultural ambassador to Africa. She gave lectures, interviewed local artists and visited museums in 11 countries. This experience led her to further explore African subjects in her work, especially her 1971–1989 paintings.

Her husband’s craft completed Lois’ art and this was further embellished by their mutual love and immersion in the folk life of Haiti. Out of her exploration into Haitian life and culture Lois expressed her imagination in appliques, at times including the visual images and iconography of voodoo.

“It was never enough for her to revel in her own joy and solid accomplishment as an artist,” Marguerite Striar wrote in Essence magazine in November 1972. “She also had to educate, to bring together, to sponsor and encourage, to act as an artist ambassador between her people and the white majority; between Americans and people of other countries; between artists and viewers. This has been her goal and life style.”

Listing just a portion of her prodigious oeuvre is a task, but such works as “Les Fetiches” (oil, 1938); “Peasant Girl” (Haiti, 1954) and “Moon Masque” (acrylic collage, 1971) are examples of her brilliant creativity. She died in 1998.