Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color

Retrospective exhibition at the Mint Museum of Art surveys seven decades of innovation

The work of Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998), a pioneering 20th century African-American artist, will be featured in a retrospective exhibition at the Mint Museum of Art November 14, 2009 – February 27, 2010. Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color surveys the artist’s 70-year career, stretching from the late Harlem Renaissance to her contemporary synthesis of African, Caribbean and American iconography.

The exhibition features more than 70 works from the artist’s estate as well as from public and private collections, and includes paintings, sketches and textile designs. Synthesizing a myriad of influences and encounters over her lifetime, Loïs Mailou Jones’s oeuvre remains a significant contribution to American art.

Jones explored a wealth of styles and subject matter in her works. Her skillful observation and inspiration from nature is revealed in colorful landscapes of Martha’s Vineyard, depictions of the winding streets and lush countryside of northern France, as well as traditional still lifes with fruits and flowers. The influence of philosopher Alain Locke, who encouraged Jones and other artists of color to draw inspiration from African arts, is evident in many of her works, such as The Ascent of Ethiopia (1932). She also conveyed the social struggles of African-Americans through powerful psychological portraits such as Mob Victim (1945) and Jennie (1943).

Born in Boston, Jones graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston during a period when racial and gender prejudices pervaded society. She began her career as a textile designer and sold her bold fabric creations to department stores until a decorator told her that a colored girl wasn’t capable of producing such beautiful designs. This incident prompted Jones to shift her artistic focus to the fine arts so that she could sign her name to her works.

Intimations of her transition from design to painting surface in compositions Jones created in the early 1930s during a brief teaching stint at Palmer Memorial Institute, a preparatory school in Sedalia, North Carolina. The paintings Negro Shack 1, Sedalia, North Carolina (1930) and Brother Brown, Greensboro, North Carolina (1931) demonstrate the Regionalist character of her early paintings.

Jones’s sense of design resurfaced later in her career after a series of international travels, which brought out in her works an overt cultivation of pattern and form in a non-narrative format. Her marriage in 1952 to noted Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël instigated a change in the subject matter and palette of her paintings. Her frequent trips to Haiti inspired paintings that displayed a marked fascination with the Caribbean culture. After additional travels that included African countries, her work became characterized by brilliant color, rich patterns and a variety of Haitian and African motifs. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter honored Jones for her outstanding achievements in the arts, and she continued to paint until her death in 1998.