"I was just full of the desire to be an artist and I don't think anything could have stopped me." --Lois Mailou Jones Pierre-Noel
Lois Mailou Jones could easily be the subject of one of her own canvases, with her cream-brown skin and short-cropped tawny hair that frames her forehead. Her deep-set eyes look straight at you and sparkle with laughter when she smiles.
Jones, whose watercolors are on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library's Anne Hathaway Gallery through March 4, has exhibited in many countries and has been highly praised for the diversity of her style. Her Northwest Washington home, filled with watercolors, oils and collages representing her nearly 50 years as an amazingly prolific painter, resembles a small museum.
Jones' achievement in art is as much a tribute to her energy and talent as to her refusal to let herself or her work to be diminished by the racial discrimination and adversity she has encountered.
Her paintings are in the permanent collections of more than 16 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Hirshhorn Museum, Corcoran Gallery, Phillips Collection and Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Cited for outstanding contributions as both artist and teacher, she was elected a fellow of London's Royal Society of Arts in 1962.
Yet, she found it difficult to gain artistic recognition as a black woman in America because "women artists, white or black, have had it hard and it was doubly hard for the black woman. I know I have had to work twice as hard to make it because of that barrier."
From Washington, Jones sought to avoid the obstacle by sending her paintings to out-of-town galleries in Philadelphia and New York, where she hoped they would be judged on their merit if her race was not known.
Jones said she submitted a watercolor to a competition at the Smithsonian in the early 1940s. She said "a gentleman of color," an art restoration expert who arranged the contest exhibits, later told her the jury had chosen her painting "Menemsha" for first prize but rejected it when someone said " 'you know she's that colored . . . . artist.' "
"These are the stings and hardships a black artist suffers," Jones said, without bitterness.
In another competition, Jones, having been told the Corcoran Gallery refused to display black artists' works, had a white artist submit her entry to the gallery's biennial show in 1941. Even after her "Indian Shops, Gay Head" won first prize, Jones said, she did not dare go to receive the award.
Not until 1955, when she became the first black elected to membership in the Society of Washington Artists, did she feel it was safe to openly acknowledge her race.
"Art started with me at a very early age. I was always drawing, and my mother and father encouraged me," Jones recalled. She got her first set of watercolors at age seven. Seventy years later, watercolors, which she completes in a fast four hours each, are still her forte.
Born in Boston, Jones warmly remembers growing up there in the early part of the century, the daughter of a beautician and a building superintendent.
"The schools were not segregated and I had the good fortune to have my teachers interested in my talent and I received much encouragement," she said. "My happiness was to go to Martha's Vineyard as soon as school was out. It was a great joy to live with nature. Environment is so important to any artist."
In 1923, at age 18, Jones won a scholarship to the school of the Boston Museum for Fine Arts. Although she won awards there and was a top student, when she graduated, Jones said, she was denied a teaching position at the school, the director suggesting, "Why don't you go south and teach your people?"
The Washington she came to in 1930, to teach art at Howard University, was very much a segregated provincial Southern city; she could not go to the theater or even try on clothes at a department store. Jones said the frustration and indignity of prejudice only reinforced her desire to help others.
Jones, who has lived at least a part of every year in Washington since she began teaching watercolor and design at Howard University, was an illustrator for the Negro History Bulletin, historian Carter G. Woodson's publication, from 1931 to 1940. In 1937, she was awarded a General Education (Rockefeller) Fellowship for a year of study at the Acad'emie Julian in Paris.
The artist said she had dreamed of studying in France since she spent summers in the 1920s at Martha's Vineyard, where she met Harry T. Burleigh, composer of Negro spirituals, and Meta Warrick Fuller, the Afro-American sculptor who had studied in Paris with Rodin.
"They told me, 'With your talent, Lois, if you want to have a success with your career, you're going to have to go abroad.' "
Her time in Paris was "one of the happiest" of her life "because I was so shackle free," she said. Her paintings were accepted and acclaimed by the prestigious Soci'et e des Artists Francais and the Soci'et e des Artists Independent.
In Paris, where she returned each summer between school years, Jones said she was influenced by the work of black painter Henry O. Tanner, who had fled to France because the U.S. art establishment refused to give black artists the opportunity to exhibit, although she never met him.
At Howard, she tried to strengthen an already impressive art department and to make it an important center for training young artists. She offered her students the benefit of her own excellent preparation and tried to educate them according to a dual tradition, utilizing both black experience and western European directions in art.
"I always felt we must not carry students in a vacuum focusing only on black art but that exposure to white artists was essential to make them well rounded," Jones said.
One of her first students was noted artist Elizabeth Catlett, Jones said, pointing to a study of two heads on her wall. "She did that in my class way back in 1930." David Driskell, head of the art department at the University of Maryland, was another student.
At the height of the black student movement of the 1960s, Jones, who was sympathetic to their efforts, said Howard was not an easy place for scholars of her generation. She found herself defending artists against charges they had neglected their African heritage.
Her own interest in social themes, Jones said, had been awakened by writer-scholar Alain Locke, a philosophy professor at Howard in the 1920s and 1930s, who told her, "All of you black artists have got to make use of your heritage."
Her prize-winning painting "Mob Victim" was a product of Locke's influence, Jones said. The model was an older man she approached on U Street NW and asked to pose for the painting, now in her private collection. She said he told her that during his youth on a Southern plantation he had witnessed a lynching and "watched the victim fasten his eyes on the heavens."
Another, in the Hirshhorn's permanent collection, "Challenge America," is a collage based on sketches she did at the 1963 March on Washington, showing a fusion of Afro-American history, African tribal roots at the bottom and civil rights leaders in the center.
Jones now spends much of her time in Haiti, where she and her late husband, respected Haitian artist Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, usually lived half the year. They married in 1953 after meeting years earlier as design students at Columbia University.
"I was greatly inspired by the beauty of Haitian peasants and scenery," said Jones, who painted both in bursts of color and cubistic designs using voodoo symbols. In 1954, the Haitian government awarded her the Diploma and Decoration de l'Ordre National.
Reflecting on the slights she has suffered, Jones said they have become for her a motivating force.
"It gave me the drive and the strength that I had to overcome," she said. One of the "great blows,"she recalled was the 1927 rejection for the teaching position by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She was vindicated 46 years later when in 1973 she became the first black artist to have a one person show there, a major retrospective of her 40 years of painting. Another retrospective of her work was held at the Phillips Collection in 1979.
Jones cites her 1980 invitation to the Carter White House with art world luminaries Richmond Barth'e, Romare Bearden and James L. Wells as another example of "things which give you courage. They make you feel that after all, you've made it."