LOIS MAILOU JONES: An Artist and a Trailblazer

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon Rotchin1 Comment

When Lois Mailou Jones began painting in the 1920s, she did so in near anonymity, a sign of the country’s racism and sexism of the time.

For more than 50 years she enjoyed a successful career as a painter, teacher, book illustrator and textile designer.  Her art spanned 3 continents: N. America, Europe and Africa.  She has been represented in more than 70 group shows and mounted 21 one-woman exhibitions since 1937.

She became a prolific artist who defied the limitations that were imposed on her because of race and gender biases.  She developed her career during times when black women had little exposure and recognition.

Jones felt that her greatest contribution in the art world was ‘proof of the talent of black artists.’  However, her fondest wish was to be known as an ‘artist’ without labels like black artist or woman artist.  

Unlike many of the artists considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance, she never lived or worked in Harlem.

Jones was born in Boston in 1905.  Her father was the first African American to graduate from Boston’s Suffolk Law school, her mother was a beautician.  

Her initial professional aspirations were to pursue a career in social work but it was the offer of a scholarship for the vocational drawing classes at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts that lead to her permanent career in art.  Jones’s scholarship was extended to 6 years based on her outstanding achievements and when she graduated in 1927 she was also awarded a teacher’s certificate.  She received diplomas from the Boston Normal Art School and Designer’s School in Boston.  She also studied art at Harvard University and Columbia University.

Jones’s first experience with racial prejudice occurred in 1927 when she applied for a graduate assistantship at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts.  Her application was flatly rejected and she was advised to travel to the South and help African Americans living there.  She eventually joined the faculty of the Fine Arts Department at Howard University in Washington and remained there as professor of design and watercolor painting for 47 years and her retirement in 1977.

Lois Mailou Jones’s career can be divided into 4 phases: the African-inspired works of the early 30’s, French landscapes, cityscapes and figure studies from 1937 to 1951, Haitian scenes of the 50’s and 60’s and the works of the several decades that reflect a return to African themes.  

In 1937 Jones received a General Education Board Exchange Fellowship to study in France.  She went to Paris to study, lived among the French, learned to speak French fluently and painted views of Paris and surrounding areas.

She said that France provided her with the first feeling of absolute freedom to live and eat wherever she chose.  Her admiration for France and its people was so profound that she returned every year, except during World War 11, for more than 20 years after her first trip.

Lois Mailou Jones was the only African-American female painter of the 1930’s and 1940’s to achieve fame abroad, and the earliest whose subjects extend beyond the realm of portraiture.

Jones’s third period was also formed outside the United States in Haiti where she discovered a second spiritual home.  She first went to the capital, Port-au-Prince, in 1954 when the Haitian government invited her to visit and paint the country’s landscape and people.

Haiti had far more meaning for Jones following her marriage to Louis Verniaud Pierre-Noel, a prominent Haitian painter. 

She and her husband lived in Washington, D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard and in Pierre-Noel’s hometown in Haiti.  They had no children and his death in 1982 ended their 29 year marriage.

Jones’s oils and watercolors inspired by Haiti are probably her most widely known works.  Her return to African themes coincided with the black expressionistic movement in the United States during the 1960’s.  Skillfully integrating aspects of African masks, figures and textiles into her vibrant paintings, Jones continued to produce exciting new works at an astonishing rate of speed, even into her late 80’s.

Lois Mailou Jones found herself at the crossroads of some of the most influential movements of the 20th century: the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights movements, Pan-Africanism.  She participated in each of these movements while challening herself by renewing her artistic choices continuously.

Throughout the history of African-American art, a number of intellectuals, activists and artists travelled to Europe, Africa and the Caribbean and encountered new cultural environments.  The chief motivation was to escape segregation and racism and to have the opportunity to explore new creative paths and materials in a friendlier atmosphere.

Lois Mailou Jones died June 9, 1998.  She was 92 years old.