Loïs Mailou JonesSep 15th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Painting & Sculpture
1905-1998 Loïs Mailou Jones was an illustrator, fine artist, and educator who achieved distinction by fusing African and Caribbean influences with American abstraction and modernism. Her artwork is displayed by important museums throughout the world.
Jones was born on November 3, 1905, in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the younger of two children of Thomas Jones and Carolyn Adams. Jones’ mother was a beauty stylist, and her father the superintendent in charge of their apartment building’s maintenance. Determined to better himself and his family’s opportunities, Jones’ father studied to become an attorney, and at age 40, succeeded. From that point on, the family was affluent enough to join the circle of accomplished African Americans who summered at Martha’s Vineyard. Surrounded by artists and intellectuals, Jones began to draw and paint at an early age.
As a teenager, Jones attended Boston’s High School of Practical Arts and took advantage of the city’s network of museums to expand her knowledge and understanding of art history. At age 17, she had a solo exhibition of her watercolor landscape paintings in Martha’s Vineyard. Soon after, Jones entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she predominantly studied design and illustration, and graduated in 1927. She followed up by earning a teaching credential with the intention of becoming an art teacher. However, Jones was awarded a scholarship to study design for a year at the Boston Designers Art School, and put her teaching plans on hold.
While studying design, Jones was drawn to the intricacy and variety of patterns in textiles. She worked closely with textile expert Frank Ludwig, and for the first time, began to draw from an international range of aesthetic influences in creating her own work. Jones capped her scholarship by attending a summer program at Harvard, and found freelance design work with high-end textile manufacturers in New York City. She enjoyed the work but still was pulled toward education. When an opportunity arose to teach at the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, Jones took it. For the next two years, she molded the still nascent art department at the all-black campus. In 1930, she accepted a position at Howard University in Washington, DC, where she became a part of the core faculty in the art department.
An African Evolution
Jones quickly became a popular and exacting professor. At the same time, she pursued her own continuing education. At a Columbia University summer program in 1934, she met a painter from Haiti named Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, and the two began a regular correspondence. Jones exhibited her work with increasing frequency in the 1930s. A white realtor, William E. Harmon, had established a foundation in New York in 1922 to promote black cultural and social achievements. Although Harmon himself died in 1928, the Harmon Foundation became a major patron of Jones and routinely exhibited her work in Manhattan. The notoriety Jones received helped her earn an invitation to study in France in 1937. On sabbatical from Howard University, she studied at the Academie Julien in Paris, and devoted herself to bold, postimpressionist paintings of Parisian life.
Jones experienced none of the racial tension she routinely felt in the United States, and was nourished as a painter with an enthusiasm from her peers that she had never before felt. It was a highly productive time for Jones, culminating in a significant painting known as Les Fetiches (1938), which depicts her cubist interpretation of African masks and headdresses. On her return to the United States, her paintings and her new-found African influence were hailed as an evolutionary step in her work. From that point on, Jones persistently merged her signature impressionist style with African American subjects and increasingly abstract elements. Remaining committed to self-improvement, she earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from Howard in the 1940s.
After many years of friendship, Jones married Pierre-Noël who had become a well-respected designer of postal stamps, in 1953. The two maintained a second home in Haiti, and the island’s Caribbean motifs and rhythms found a place in Jones’ paintings. Her work became increasingly abstract, and infused with bold forms and colors pulled from her lexicon of experience in Haiti and return trips to France and Europe. Enamored of Haiti, Jones spent significant time there between university terms, working on her own paintings and sometimes teaching at the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. In the late 1960s, she began to collect extensive information about the practices of black artists working in Haiti with the intention of creating a documentary project.
In 1970, she finally fulfilled a long-standing goal by taking another sabbatical and touring through several African nations. In Africa, Jones not only traveled as a tourist, but also interviewed African artists and photographed their artwork. She lectured extensively on her own work and that of her American peers. The paintings Jones made over the coming decade were tremendously influenced by her experience in Africa. She ultimately compiled her interviews and photographs alongside those she had collected in Haiti, and produced a voluminous and significant documentary photography project titled The Black Visual Arts.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts mounted a triumphant retrospective of Jones’ career in 1973. After a few more years of teaching at Howard, she retired from her faculty position in 1977, but remained devoted to her own painting. Jones suffered the loss of her husband when he died in 1982, but threw herself into new projects, opening her own gallery in Martha’s Vineyard at age 82. Ten years later, on June 9, 1998, she died in Washington, DC, at her home.
During her lifetime, Jones was the recipient of national awards bestowed by both the Haitian and U.S. governments, and earned the acclaim of her students and the international art world. Her bold and always evolving painting style remains significant for its combination of cultural elements from many nations, and continues to be celebrated at museums around the world.