‘Lois Mailou Jones: A Life In Vibrant Color’ On View In D.C.

By Stephen May

Textile designer, teacher and painter, Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) 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.

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