In "Ubi Girl from Tai Region," one of Lois Mailou Jones' contemporary paintings, a girl's face half-covered with the red and white paint of initiation looms out of the profile of an African woman. Around the two figures swirl masks of orange, rivers of blue and green, twists and circles of earthen colors.
Jones the artist shares the same complexity, the same gentle and rasping qualities. She was the first black woman painter to attain historic importance, according to black art historians. The fate of "Ubi Girl" is an example of the conflicts and celebrations of her 72 years. That painting is now owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Thirty-six years ago she had to sneak a painting into a major competition.
"I would take her sledding on the Boston Commons," remembers a life-long friends, Dorothy Boulding Ferebee."And she would ask to be home by 4 p.m. so she could paint. That was always her ambition."
Among some black artists Jones is regarded as an eminence, a forerunner, and tonight she will be honored at the Charter Day dinner of Howard University, where she taught for 47 years.
Yet, she says: "I haven't arrived at where I want to be." The look from her constantly moving brown eyes is hard, and the tone of her French-accented voice is weary.
"Personally, in view of my works that have been tested in major exhibits, I feel secure. But I have a lot more to do. In 1976 I went to a seminar with Lousie Vevelson, Alice Neel and Isabelle Bishop. We all admitted the acclaim was coming so late. But they also wanted to know where I had been. How it was that we hadn't met?" says Jones. Her expression is momentarily sad, grim that these women hadn't bothered to look into her world.
(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)n active artist since the 1920s, she has produced textile designs, impressionistic streescapes, still-lifes and respresentational Haitian, African and Afro-American subjects.
Ten years ago, in an introduction to a show at the Smith-Mason Gallery here, John Gernard of the Phillips said, "Those of us who have enjoyed her painting over the years have long ago taken for granted a superb technical command . . . Lois is always true to herself . . . she has turned her back on dizzying fasion and the market place of chic.
On Cape Cod, away from her hometown of Boston - where her father worked as a building superintendent and her mother as a beautician - Jones found her early artistic inspiration. "In Boston I didn't feel close to nature. On the Cape I could see the buttercups, the daisies and the sea," says Jones. During the summers at her grandmother's house, she met Meta Warrick Fuller, a black sculptor, and Jonas Lie, president of the National Academy of Design. "Fuller told stories of working with Rodin, and I realized that Europe was an important part of education. Lie was very encouraging."
In Boston, she attended a commercial high school, studying after school at the Boston Museum and starting part-time work in her specially, design. Later Jones had a four-year scholarship to the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts.
In the mid-1920s the traditional route for the handful of black woman artists was either to teach, study in Europe for mainstream credentials or gain exposure by illustrating for publications like "Crisis" and "Opportunity." Before World War II. Jones had met all the requirements.She joined the Howard faculty in 1930 starting at a salary of $1,500. She endured years of what she felt was chauvinism and penny-pinching in an atmosphere she nonethelss describes as stimulating.
"Howard had a strong bold on me, despite the arguments of 'why do you need to go abroad.' I loved my students," says Jones. "Also it gave me a certain prestige, a certain dignity. And it save me from being trampled upon by the outside."
From 1936 until the outbreak of World War II, Jones went to Europe for the summers. One day she was painting by the Seine when Emile Bernard, the father of French symbolism and tutor to Gauguin and Van Gogh, stopped by her. "He remarked how good it was to see an artist who was sincere. He told me, and my friend, Celine Tabary, to leave our canvasses in his studio each night, instead of carrying them on the Metro. So, many days, we ended up our work by having tea with a great man."
Those contacts, and her acceptance in the exhibitions at the Salon des Artistes Francais, built up her confidence. "I knew I must have something, some talent, and I decided to have this career at any cost," Jones says firmly.
When she returned to Howard, Alain Locke, the distinguished scholar, complimented her MOntmartre phase but encouraged her to do more on the condition of the Afro-American. "I had work for Carter G. Woodson's publications but I wanted to say more. I wanted to make a statement about lynching," says Jones. On Street one afternoon she found a tall,elderly man who had witnessed a lynching and agreed to be her model. "Mob Victim," the result, is an elegant, haunting picture of a man in a grove of trees, his large hands crossed and his eyes fastened on the sky.
But the problems of black artists continued. ONe of her paintings won first prize in a compition at the Corcoran, but it has to be entered by a white friend (who also picked up the prize in her name). Two years later Jones revealed her identity to the Corcoran.
"It was a must for me to be in that competition. But I thought it was best to secure my position as an artist, and to be accepted on quality grounds, before I revealed myslef," says Jones. Recalls Delilah Pierce, "We were all hurt that the galleries didn't invite blacks to show. But we weren't as militant as today's black artist (Lois was mas she couldn't be herself."
Slowly opportunities came. In 1943 the Barnett-Aden Collection opened in the home of two Howard professors, providing some exposure for black artists. Jones had a studio, working with Alma Thomas, Richard Dempsey and Pierce.
Her impressionistic period began to fade in the early 1950s when she married Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, a well-known Haitian artist, who introduced her to another culture. In 1954 she was inivited by Haiti's President Paul Magloire to be the country's guest artist, and her Haitian paintings garnered praise from Sir Kenneth Clark, among others.
Aside from her muted recognition her one regret is that she doesn't have any children. "My friends say 'you have our art, you have made a contribution.' We'll, that's not a consolation. I would like a son, I don't like little girls."
At Howard in the mid-1960s she was not only the symbol of authority on a volatile campus but also of the old guard artist. Younger blacks were calling loudly for a new esthetic. David Driskell, a former student who is now an art professor at the University of Maryland, remembers, "In the 1960s she was the entrenched professor. She was the target but she managed to stay above the antibourgeois rhetoric. Gradually she was recognized for her historic links."
Because she wants very much to be recognized, she reacts strongly when she feels slighted. She chastised a collegue publicly one night for not giving her name prominence on a program. She once chased a student down the hall with a hammer for disregarding her directions.
Her retirement has accelerated her push for recognition. On a gallery scouting trip last fall in Paris, a curator told her that she was a very young painter. "Pierre starting correcting him, saying, or no she's in her 70s. But the man said, 'not in age, you think young, think of what Piscasso could do at the same age.' That was quite encourageing because sometimes you get a place, where you retire,and you can't go on," say Jones. And her next thought is part-pledge, part prayer: "I feel I have a lot to say and I can't wait to continue."