- An Interview with Chris Chapman
Dr. Chris Chapman is the General Trustee of the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust. We recorded this interview on January 3, 2015, in the Library of the Jefferson Hotel, Washington, DC, a year after I met Dr. Chapman at Emory University during the 2014 annual Callaloo ConferenCe, Atlanta, Georgia.
How did you come to know Loïs Mailou Jones? What was your introduction to her?
My introduction to Loïs Mailou Jones came in 1987. I had just graduated from the Georgetown University School of Medicine as a young physician and my wife had just graduated from Howard University Dental School, and we were looking for an apartment in close proximity to Georgetown University. A good friend of ours, Gloria Johnson, who had lived in that area about twenty years, told us a friend, Loïs Mailou Jones, had a very nice basement apartment that we could rent out and live in and that we would have access to the entire house which was full of paintings. When my wife visited Loïs at the home, saw the paintings and fell in love with the house and artwork. She called me and told me she thought this was where we should move. And that was the beginning of my relationship with Loïs Mailou Jones.
You are a Trustee of Loïs Mailou Jones. A major responsibility indeed. Right? What is your exact title? How did you come to oversee her artworks after she passed? I think we would all like to know about some of the pertinent exchanges you and your wife had with Ms. Jones.
As tenants in Loïs's apartment, my wife and I had access to downstairs, and there were steps leading upstairs, and Loïs would leave the door open every night. I was interested in seeing all of her artwork, and I would always walk upstairs. Loïs and I would sit down in the dining room and watch Nightline every night and then Loïs would start telling me stories about back in 1928, 1929, when she met Carter G. Woodson, one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard University. I could really identify with Carter G. Woodson, and my first thought was, "You knew Carter G. Woodson?" And Loïs said, "Yes, I was his illustrator." And that was just so fascinating. And at that point, I wanted to know everything that Loïs knew about Woodson, her relationship, when she talked to him, when she met him, and what she had done for him. So I started asking Loïs about her relationship with Carter G. Woodson and every night we would sit at the table, and she would tell me [End Page 1033] about Langston Hughes, Arthur Schomburg, Josephine Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Matthew Henson, Alain Locke, and Alma Thomas, all these great artists and African Americans, and she'd talk about presidents—Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the President of Haiti or the President of France and all over the world. She had travelled to many of the African countries, and had met their presidents and other leaders. And I said, "This lady is very interesting."
She had met these …?
She had met these leaders and presidents all over the world for years, and I'm sitting in this room with her and I'm just a physician, and I said, "This is exciting to me." I started taping some of our conversations and taking notes. And then every night she'd talk about different paintings and why she had painted this particular painting, you know, why she started her career in 1929, and went down to Palmer Memorial Institute. And through the Great Depression, how she was employed, and how she came to Howard University in 1930, and how she travelled to France in 1937. And the genesis of her life, she just laid it out for me and it all related back to her relationship with Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History Month, which is really what got this whole thing started. So the...