Lois Malou Jones: An Afro-Cubist-Modernist American Treasure

“The Ascent of Ethiopia,” 1932, Lois Malou Jones, Milwaukee Museum of Art.

Cubists were old white French dudes who painted blocky shapes in gray and brown, and there’d be a guitar in there, somewhere. They all seemed to have an African period, where they became enamored of African masks and imitated by flattening the faces in their paintings; then they moved on to something else. The impressionists used pastels, rarely vibrant colors. Didn’t the Harlem Renaissance meant jazz flowing from a briefly opened door in an underground speakeasy during Prohibition–maybe there was a gay poet in there, somewhere?

Lois Malou Jones has enlightened me.

I probably know a little more about modern art than the average person, as my mother taught classes on the subject, and our house was filled with Pollock prints (mine has O’Keeffe and Hopper). But I recently took a refresher class on modernism (OLLI is America’s best-kept secret and Jannie Dresser is the bomb-digitty of teachers). When we covered the Harlem Renaissance, I realized I knew very little about Black American modern artists and appallingly nothing about our American jewel, painter Jones.

Cultured, Educated, Ignored

Jones was born and raised in Boston; her parents were educated, and they, in turn, encouraged both her education and artistic development. She sold her bold and beautiful designs to department stores; she had a solo exhibit in Martha’s Vineyard at the age of 17. She apprenticed with designer Grace Ripley, and eventually created costume designs for the Denishawn dance troupe (Martha Graham was one of the students). After completing her degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, however… you can guess the rest. One decorator told her that a “colored girl” couldn’t possibly produce such designs.

“Symbols d’Afrique,” 1980, Lois Malou Jones.
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The Mother of Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale, engraving from Library of Congress

Mary had a turkey browned
From three hours in the oven
Her guests were drooling all the while
For gravy and the stuffin’

Hale’s famous poem, variation by kajmeister

Perhaps Americans would still have invented Thanksgiving without Sarah Josepha Hale. After all, proclamations of Thanksgiving had been declared by the Continental Congresses by Samuel Adams and John Hanson and the like:

It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for His gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner, to give Him praise for His goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of His Providence in their behalf; therefore, the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged and so on and so forth etcetera etcetera etcetera…

November 1782, text for the Thanksgiving or National Prayer Day observation (Wikipedia)

That seems a rather dry plateful of harvest to start with, taking some 250 words until it even gets to the Thanksgiving part of the equation. Why, there’s hardly any gravy at all, although there does seem to be quite a bit of lard in it, so maybe the pies were flaky.

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The Cosmonauts in the Mirror

As a person of a certain age, I always associate the word “cosmonaut” with space villains, who launch spy satellites and build giant lasers on the moon to execute secret plans for world domination. Everyone raised in the 1960-70s “knows” that America did all the important space stuff like design a plane to fly in space and land on the moon. The reality, of course, is that the Soviet and Russian space programs, like the American space program, have been a blend of science and humanity, ingenuity and bravery, success and failure. While many goals were military, the Soviet achievements were as much about beating the United States (or playing catch up to perceived U.S. advantages) as anything else. In that sense, the journey into space and advances in knowledge shared by humanity have derived from a giant game of tag between superpowers.

Since today’s launch of the first astronauts in an American spacecraft since the end of the shuttle program has been delayed until Saturday–godspeed Behnken and Hurley–perhaps it’s a good day to review some space history. But we often hear only about the Americans, like what John Glenn or Neil Armstrong experienced. What about their mirror image counterparts?

A Vostok 3KA descent module like the one used by pioneer cosmonauts. This one was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $2.9 million. Photo by Anatoly Zak.
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Z is for Zagunis

Punk rockers. Primal screamers. Saber fencers are the cool cats of the Olympics, carrying themselves with deadly grace but ready to strike to the death at the first Engarde!

America’s greatest fencer is a good Catholic girl until she puts on the mask. Then, she is All Ninja.

Mariel Zagunis qualifying for Tokyo, one last Olympics. Photo at Oregon Tribune.

Like ninjas, no one knows she’s even there. If you query who is the greatest American fencer, her name doesn’t even come up, until Touché! And, since ninjas never lose their skill and training, Mariel Zagunis, the one you don’t see until it is too late haha!, is going to Tokyo once more.

Maybe They Should Dress Like Luke Skywalker

Fencing is such a cool sport to watch that it’s hard to understand why Americans don’t follow it. Especially when we do follow it in movies, right? We love a good swordfight. Robin Hood, Zorro, Conan, D’Artagnan, the Man in Black! My name is Inigo Montoyaprepare to die. If you give kids a pair of sticks, the first thing they do is start poking each other.

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S is for Shields

Claressa Shields would be considered a Cinderella story, if Cinderella could be described as a brutish annihilator who liked “to make the girls cry.” Whose nickname is T-Rex. Who talks trash like crazy and is dismissive of anyone who dares challenge her. Still, Shields overcame odds just to make it into the Olympics, then accomplished what no American had ever done, winning back-to-back gold medals in boxing. Even now, with a lifetime record of 87-1, she could be considered an underdog. Because Claressa Shields is from Flint, Michigan.

Claressa Shields, double gold medalist in boxing. Photo from ESPN, “Made in Flint.”

Though some people chose to focus on my hair, my body and the way I talked, I couldn’t care less about a hairstyle or the way I spoke. If you asked me about college, family and my upbringing, I was mute. I didn’t want to talk about anything I didn’t understand or anything that was hurtful. Now, if you asked me about boxing, we could have a conversation.

Shields, “A Letter to Boxing Fans,” in TheUndefeated.com.
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