Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color, a lively exhibition surveying the wide array of subjects and styles explored by the artist throughout her lifetime is on view at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens through January 4, 2013.
The myriad of themes explored by Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998) over the impressive length of her career makes for a dynamic exhibition of more than 70 works, including paintings, drawings and textile designs. The retrospective begins with her early textile designs and sketches from the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at a time when racial and gender prejudices pervaded society, Jones began her career as a textile designer. She 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 she could sign her name to her works.
During a brief teaching stint at Palmer Memorial Institute, a preparatory school in Sedalia, North Carolina, Jones created several paintings that marked her transition from design to fine art. Though far less vivid than the later works for which she became famous, these early paintings still clearly show her fascination with color and culture.
Jones’ influences were extensive throughout the remainder of her career. Her lush oil paintings of the French countryside and traditional fruit and flower still lifes highlight her skillful observation of nature. The influence of philosopher Alain Locke, who encouraged Jones to draw inspiration from African art, is evident in many of her later works, such as Irma (1972). She also conveyed the social struggles of African-Americans through powerful psychological portraits such as Mob Victim (1945) and Jennie (1943). 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 re-energized her strong design sense and inspired vivid acrylic and watercolor paintings that displayed a marked fascination with 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 addition to her outstanding accomplishments as an artist, Jones was also a noted educator at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for 47 years. It has been said that Jones was just as involved in her students’ career developments as her own. Among her illustrious students are David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett and Robert Freeman.
President Jimmy Carter honored Jones for her outstanding achievements in the arts in 1980, and in the last ten years of her life both President Bill Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac met the artist and collected her work. During a six-year solo exhibition tour, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. held an 89th birthday party for Jones and apologized for previous prejudicial policies. Loïs Mailou Jones continued to create her vibrant paintings until her death in 1998.