- Loïs Mailou Jones
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Mine is a quiet exploration—a quest for new meanings in color, texture, and design. Even though I sometimes portray scenes of poor and struggling people, it is a great joy to paint.—Loïs Mailou Jones qtd. in Black Artists on Art by Samella S. Lewis and Ruth G. Waddy (1969)
Nine years before she passed in 1998, Loïs Mailou Jones graciously allowed me to visit her at her home in Washington, DC, to record an interview with her for Callaloo. Her interview is one of the most revelatory I had ever conducted, and she ended it with these words:
So now, Charles, in the sixtieth year of my career, I can look back on my work and be inspired by France, Haiti, Africa, the Black experience, and Martha's Vineyard (where it all began) and admit: there is no end to creative expression.
What an inspiring, optimistic, and provocative conclusion to an autobiographical interview—her brief narrative on her long life and career as a visual artist, with invaluable comments on her oeuvre. Loïs Mailou Jones's Callaloo interview is more than an autobiographical narrative; it is, in fact, a metaphor on the limitlessness of the imaginary and what it offers the individual with an active and lively imagination and the steadfast will to use it productively. "[T]here is no end to creative expression"—Loïs Mailou Jones's final statement is also a self-reflexive testament to the individual's will to prevail and triumph as an artist in white-racist and sexist America, as the trajectory of her personal and professional life demonstrates.
Imbedded in the final words of her interview is, moreover, a signal of how one might construct a reading or history of her production as a visual artist. Art historians—including Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, author of The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones—have examined Jones's art in terms of calendar periods or years—for example, these periods: 1928–1936, 1937–1953, 1954–1967, 1968–1988, 1989–1998. It is not calendars and their measuring of time and seasons that define or direct Jones's work; it is instead what happened in particular places, and which individuals and groups of people that influenced her in the making of art. Martha's Vineyard, France, Haiti, Africa, and the collective experiences of African Americans from the seventeenth century to the present have informed her visual art production. First, who, in terms of the facts, is Loïs Mailou Jones? That is, what are some of the facts of her life that might help us understand her as an individual producing visual art, struggling against racism and sexism, and, finally, late in life, receiving some recognition for her achievements?
Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998)—painter, designer, educator—was born in Boston, MA, to middle-class parents. Her father, Thomas Vreeland Jones, was an ambitious man who, while serving as the manager of the building in which he and his family lived, took night classes at Suffolk Law School, from which he, as the institution's first black graduate, received a law degree. Her mother, Carolyn Jones, was an enterprising cosmetologist. As vigilant parents, both mother and father encouraged and supported the childhood interests of their precocious and creative daughter. "As a child," Jones recalled in her 1989 Callaloo interview, [End Page 1018]
I was always drawing. I loved color. My mother and father, realizing that I had talent, gave me an excellent supply of crayons and pencils and paper—and encouraged me. Yes, I owe a great deal to both of them, my mother and my father, for taking an interest in me.
Recognizing and supporting her talents, her parents enrolled her in schools that supported her penchant for visual arts. "I went to the High School of Practical Arts in Boston," Jones continues,
where I could major in art. I graduated from there, and, at the same time, I won a scholarship to the Boston Museum Vocational Drawing Class. I...