A Profile of Lois Mailou Jones

by Judith Levine

Photograph of the artist

I didn’t get to march in this year’s Wheaton Arts Parade, so I decided to share with you the artist I planned to honor . Lois Mailou Jones, an American treasure, was born November 3, 1905, in Boston and died on June 9, 1998, in Washington, DC.  Her parents noticed her love of art and she took classes from childhood on.

After completing high school, in 1927 Jones enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to study for her bachelor’s degree. She finished with honors and continued on to earn her MA in Textile Design. The school refused to hire the evidently qualified woman, “… telling her to find a job in the South where her people lived.” ( Kirschke,  Ater: Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance).

Recruited by James Vernon Herring in 1930, she joined the Howard University staff where she would teach until 1977.  She received a second BA, this time in Art Education in 1945 from Howard, graduating magna cum laude. Jones remained a voracious learner and took numerous classes her entire life.

Les Fétiches, 1938 –Paris (at left); Jennie, 1943

Jones took a sabbatical year in 1937 to attend the Académie Julian, and fell in love with France. “Paris really gave me my freedom. I forgot my color. I forgot that I was black,” she told Bart Barnes of The Washington Post.

She began to do plein aire during this time. Indeed, she returned to France in 1953 to marry noted Haitian artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël. They would split their time between Haiti and Washington for the rest of their lives. Given her lively curiosity, after her marriage Jones began to explore and paint Haitian culture and its people. It was also when her paintings began to shift from a representational style to a far more expressionistic style. This would shift even further into abstractionism after two extensive research tours of Africa in the late ’60s and early ’70s saw her work take on a stronger African influence.

“Mine is a quiet exploration—a quest for new meanings in color, texture and design. Even though I sometimes portray scenes of poor and struggling people, it is a great joy to paint.” This is how Jones spoke of her painting.  Her earliest works were in quiet colors but even then she showed an interest in African arts and images.

Les Fétiches, currently owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was completed during her first visit to France. The beginning of her eventual move into abstraction is already evident.  She continued to work in a representational style but her turn to stronger colors can be seen in the way her model Jennie is dressed in a 1943 painting after her move to Washington.

From left Water Carriers, Haiti 1985; Fabric Vendors, 1961; Dahomey, 1971

After her marriage 1953, Jones and Pierre-Noël began to spend time in Haiti and the artist immersed herself in the island’s vibrant culture. Her use of colors reflects the island and its people which, in turn reflect the African origins of much of the population. By the time Jones made her two extensive African trips, her paintings began to move into an even more abstract vision.

Ubi Girl from Tai Region, 1972; Study for a Mask, 1994

True to herself, Jones never stopped exploring, growing and evolving. She became a mentor to many of her students because she constantly encouraged individual growth. Lois Mailou Jones had been described as a late Harlem Renaissance artist, a great Black Artist, and a great woman artist. In my estimation, she is simply a great artist.

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