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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Logo-philia

Def: Noun
1. a love of words

Large open book with magnifying glass
My 25 lb OED requires a magnifying glass to see the citations. Photo by kajmeister.

I was trying to understand the roots of the words gymnastics, which came from the Greek gymnasium. Was it a word about activity? A place where you do activity, or with the body, perhaps? I was given another word gymnanthous which was defined further as achlamydeous, and I vented that this was the problem with dictionaries. You look up a word, and it hyper-links to another word you don’t know and so on. (Achlamydeous=having neither calyx nor corolla). Like googling websites, you link and link, and suddenly it was a rabbit hole that ate up a half hour of your day.

Yet, it was glorious, wasn’t it?

Apparently, I’m not alone. When I put this on social media, I found that I know many people who get starry-eyed at the thought of dictionaries, many who used to thumb through them at leisure, and some who own them. My People! (They also are quite fond of buttered toast, but who isn’t?)

dictionary close-up
Through the magnifying glass of my OED. Photo by kajmeister.
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Old Friends Made New

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I want to spend a few words talking about the power of art.

What does Katy Perry have to do with the fall of Sauron? Creativity, talent, music, words, the human expression of emotion can stave off the darkness and give us the strength to go forward in facing challenges. Reconnecting with art we know makes it even more powerful.

Katie Perry gestured. It was corny, it was Americana, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Photo from Getty Images.

Who’s Lung-Busting Kitsch Now?

Maybe you could have looked in a crystal ball six years ago and predicted it. Let’s have the singer of “Sorry, Not Sorry” deliver a moving tribute to health care workers during our next pandemic. Let’s have her use our dear-departed Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” as a way to bind the country together–online, of course–beamed into the White House. Demi Lovato never looked more elegant and the world never looked more “alright with me.”

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Our House, Our Capitol

At the Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the Capitol dome was still under construction. Photo at Wikipedia/ Library of Congress.

Vandals attacked Our House yesterday, but as the aimless barbarians they were, they could do little but pose for idiotic selfies. We can repair the windows; no real damage to the Apotheosis of our Democracy. The walls have been refurbished before. Our House–Our Capitol–has long been a work in progress, changing continuously. After all, it’s built on words.

By Jove

I did not, until today actually understand the distinction between “capitol” and “capital,” which means I’ve probably misused them for years. I thought “capitol” meant the governmental head of something whereas “capital” meant money or referred to a good idea. Actually, the “capitol” is the building, and the “capital” is the place. “Capital” can also refer to a size of a letter or wealth, i.e. the source of wealth.

Jefferson invented the specific idea of the “Capitol,” or rather he stole borrowed it from Rome. The original architect for the Capitol building–and we’ll get to architects in a minute–wanted to call it the “Congress House,” to be distinguished from the “President’s House” or executive mansion, the White House. But Jefferson, always a guy who understood the optics, thought it needed to have classical influences.

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Is Santa Claus Really Jesus?

Jesus armwrestles Santa
Photo at AlanRudnick.org

Or was Jesus really Santa Claus? OK, perhaps that feels a little clickbaitey, but there’s an interesting degree of overlap between these well-known historical characters who reign over Christmas proceedings in various ways.

I apologize in advance if this blog topic offends anyone. If your initial reaction is “Sacrilege!” you could stop reading now before gathering too much umbrage. I was raised partly devout Catholic and partly doubting Unitarian, so I do speak Christianity. My personal faith–and I do have one–sits somewhere between pagan and atheist. The atheists are too nihilistic for me (c’mon! sunsets! tulips! puppies! there’s something there!) but the pagans are also too organized and just as preachy as the Catholics. I tried reading a book on How to Be a Pagan once, and it demanded I go vegan and stop wearing leather. So much for that.

It’s long been fascinating to watch the tussle between Santa and Jesus that takes place this time of year, or the tussle between gift-getting and altriusm, more to the point. It’s not really an either/or, though, is it? There were real people, there were stories that augmented their life, and those stories keep evolving.

Will the Real One Please Stand Up?

Bearded. Robed. Known for his generosity. Categorized deeds as either meeting standards or as violations. Miscreants on the left and do-gooders on the right. (Or is naughty on the right and nice on the left? ) Painted by the famous, whether accurate or not. Immortalized in song, which then may or may not be included in the “legend.”

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