Was it a racial slur or the prospect of toiling in obscurity that caused Loïs Mailou Jones to choose the artist's life?
Her biography suggests that a decorator's comment -- "How could you have designed that? You're a colored girl" -- about Jones' fabric designs caused the 23-year-old Jones to abandon plans to go to New York City and seek a career in textile design.
In other instances biographers say it was Jones' desire for name recognition that steered her toward fine art and away from industrial design.
Whichever it was, in 1928, the highly skilled college graduate, who had won many awards for her artwork, embarked on life's adventurous path. She chose painting, and she was quite successful, carving a career in education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she taught for 49 years. Her artwork took her all over the world. She had an exciting life filled with accomplishments, and her story, told through more than 70 pieces of her artwork, is on display through July 23 at the Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future in Dallas.
Jones' earliest pieces -- school studies, still-life paintings and portraits -- made before the life-defining moment, show a capable artist skilled in the prevailing art styles. Her paintings Babelle and La Mere, painted in Paris in 1937 and 1938, are sweet. However, the 20th-century timeline benefited Jones; she was a mature artist when the civil-rights and women's movements churned through society, and she was ready to address these issues in her work.
After marrying Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, she traveled to the Caribbean and then to a number of African countries. The flat, brightly colored graphics of island and African art became recurring motifs in her work. Jones combined African symbols such as the Ghanaian glyphs called Adinkra; masks; flat, bright island colors; and her own realistic style to create paintings that spoke to a large body of people of all colors.
Mere Senegal, from 1985, has the same theme, a mother caring for a child, as that found in La Mere, but the difference is dramatic. The later work -- with flat, graphic patterns peeling back to reveal a mother braiding her daughter's hair against a scorching yellow-orange background -- is not a quiet moment but a geopolitical one. Her African-American paintings were collector-pleasing, and her career took a huge leap forward.
Her artwork is not aggressively political, but it is subtly subversive, as was she. In 1941, she entered an art competition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that was closed to African-Americans. She won, and to keep her race a secret, she had the award mailed to her home. By the mid-'50s, she was held in high esteem in Paris, where a book of her paintings was published. She also won over Washington, where she gathered awards and had solo shows. Her reputation spread to London, where, in 1962, she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Jones' work was included in the 1976 exhibit "Two Centuries of Black American Art," and, in 1980, she was one of 10 artists recognized by President Jimmy Carter with an Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts. In 1990, a solo retrospective of her work traveled to 17 venues in the United States. In 1994 when the exhibit "The World of Loïs Mailou Jones" opened at the Corcoran, she was offered -- and she accepted -- a public apology for the institution's past prejudicial policies.
Jones died in 1998. Throughout her life, her painting style reflected her location or her recent travels. There is no consistency to her work, as she was as fond of plein-air painting on Martha's Vineyard as she was of studio work in Paris that had decided impressionistic overtones. When she was called to illustrate books of African-American history, she would draw heavily on her knowledge of African graphic elements. She was a good painter who painted to please herself, and in doing so, created a life of value with name recognition.
"Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color" was developed through the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C., in collaboration with the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust; it is on a nine-city tour.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113