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.

She applied to teach at her alma mater, the School of Fine Arts, but was summarily rejected. She was told to “go south, to help her people.” Do you suppose they meant South Boston?

Jones did begin teaching, at a small Black prep school in North Carolina, the Palmer Memorial Institute. Along with teaching art, she taught folk dancing and basketball. But then someone saw the work of this 25-year-old and hire her to teach at Howard University in Washington D.C. She remained on the faculty for 47 years.

Summers in Harlem

Jones did spend time rubbing shoulders with the great intellectuals that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance–other painters, poets, writers, and musicians. She and Aaron Douglas influenced each other on bringing African flavors into paintings like the “Ascent of Ethiopia” at the top of the post. The art incorporated the flat, two-dimensional styles of the European modernists, like Cezanne and Picasso. But the themes were more political. This invigorating early masterpiece shows the rise of Black Americans, guided by the north star that took them out of the slavery and into the northern cities to their rich culture. Yet all of it was built upon the immense Egyptian heritage, the original empire of culture, from centuries earlier.

“Heritage,” 1936/1970s,Lois Malou Jones, The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg S.C.

This pen-and-ink illustration “Heritage” was for a textbook. Like so many of Jones’ designs, it is simple without being simplistic. It is a plain concept with rich and intricate detail, with more to explore wherever the eye lands. The black-and-white design reminds me of the Dutch engravings from the 17th century, in using the absence of color to highlight design. But Jones also had so much to say with color.

“Parade de Paysans,” 1961. Lois Malou Jones, SwannGalleries.

Traveller to More Accepting Cultures

Jones was able to travel extensively, beginning in the 1930s, in the very flush of the Parisian art scene. After hanging out with Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes, she received a fellowship to study in Paris at the Academie Julien. She learned the ins and outs of watercolors and the plein air technique. The French intellectuals were also developing the theory of “Négritude,” the idea of raising Black consciousness worldwide, arguing for a notion of Pan-Africanism. The politics was Marxist, and the writing surrealist. Jones was one of the first to translate the thoughts onto canvas, and her earliest representations are now displayed in the Smithsonian.

Lois Malou Jones @ 1930s, photo from timeline.com.

She found Paris far more accepting of her talent than America, as so many others did. Ths 1920s and 30s brought James Baldwin and Josephine Baker to Paris as well. Later, Jones would giggle at a memory of a French waiter, giving her the side-eye while he fixed her cafe and finally asking, Vous etes Josephine Baker? Sadly, she told him, Non. If he’d only known!

Eglise St. Joseph, 1954. Lois Malou Jones, Smithsonian Art Museum.

Falling in Love with Haiti

Jones also found herself in Haiti, 1954, as a guest lecturer. The government asked her to memorialize Haitian scenes. She chose street scenes as her colleagues would have painted the avenues of Paris, except these were the vendors, tradesmen, working people in Haiti. Some paintings could be seen as cousins to Cezanne, while others are more like studies for murals. I keep going back to the Haitian water carriers. Jones has done what seems so easy for artists and so hard for the rest of us–taking a very simple, almost flat-looking design highlighted against a colorful background, but you can almost see the children vibrating with energy, asking can they go yet?

“Water Carriers, Haiti,” 1985. Lois Malou Jones, Mint Museum of Art.

Her husband, Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, was a Haitian artist whom she had met while studying at Columbia. They had known each other for decades when she finally decided to marry him, in the south of France, at aged 48, after years of correspondence. That seems like a love story that needs to be told, n’est ce pas? They travelled back and forth between Washington and Haiti, and her African influences shifted to incorporate Afro-Caribbean influences as well.

Meanwhile at home, friends like Celine Marie Tabary, another painter but with the acceptable skin color (white), helped get her paintings on display. Jones would often send her paintings directly to museums, where they would be exhibited after correspondence with the artist, by curators who never had a chance to meet her in person. She also tells of visiting one exhibit and staring thoughtfully at one of her paintings. A white guard approaches after some minutes and say, “You sure must like art.” She simply smiled; did not tell him.

Such a Legacy

Jones ended up with several degrees in art and design, sprinkled over her lifetime. She was always teaching–reportedly an outstanding mentor to other students–but always learning as well. She took care of herself, living to age 92 over years when it could not have been easy. She was prolific, with works that spanned types–oil, watercolor, pen and ink, drawings–that numbered in the hundreds.

There is a wonderfully detailed timeline of her background here and an all-too brief display of many of her works here and just the ones at the Smithsonian here. She was interviewed for “Good Morning America” in the late 1980s, and it’s a delight to hear her cultured Boston accent here.

“Mere du Senegal,” 1985. Lois Malou Jones, Courtesy of the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust.

Ultimately, Jones had such a strong vision and broad influences on other artists throughout her career that she ought to have her own wing of the Smithsonian, don’t we think? Not just the odd exhibition here or there, and not just another reference to “the unheralded,” but to have her own arm of the Modernist movement named after her. No one apparently thought to ask her about it at the time, although she reflected on many inspirations and many influences over her long and storied career.

For want of a better word, we might call it Loisism. And let the art critics chew over that.