LOÏS MAILOU JONES (1905 – 1998) was a painter, art teacher and longest-surviving artist of the Harlem Renaissance.
Born on Nov. 3, 1905, in Boston, Mass., to Thomas Vreeland, a building super turned lawyer, and Carolyn Dorinda Jones, a cosmetologist, Loïs was blessed with artistic ability at an early age. Spending her summers on Martha’s Vineyard Island with her grandmother, Phoebe Moseley Adams Ballou, who was a respected businesswoman and landowner, Loïs fell in love with the bright colors around her, which varied greatly from the landscape of industrialized Boston. She continued painting and drawing with encouragement from mentors such as painter Jonas Lie, African-American classical composer Harry Burleigh and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, the first black artist to make art which celebrated Afrocentric themes.
Upon graduating with honors from Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1927, Loïs began a career in textiles until a decorator told her, “You couldn’t have done this, you’re a colored girl.” She went on to earn a certificate from Boston Normal School, now Massachusetts College of Art, as well a graduate degree from the Designers Art School of Boston.
Unable to find a teaching position in Boston, Loïs relocated to Sedalia, North Carolina, where she developed the art department at Palmer Memorial Institute. Shortly thereafter, Loïs began dating James Vernon Herring, founder of the Howard University Department of Art in 1922, who also persuaded her to come work for him. In 1936, Dr. Carter G. Woodson commissioned Loïs to illustrate material for National Negro History Week. The following year, she received a fellowship to study at the Academic Julian in Paris. While there, she produced nearly 40 pieces during the year, with her work accepted on the level of quality and worth, rather than race. The city also gave Loïs more access to museums as well as more freedom to find herself:
“The French were so inspiring. The people would stand and watch me and say ‘Mademoiselle, you are so very talented. You are so wonderful.‘ In other words, the color of my skin didn’t matter in Paris and that was one of the main reasons why I think I was encouraged and began to really think I was talented.”
When she returned to the States, she was determined to have her work recognized. Since many galleries banned black artists, Loïs had a white friend submit one of her paintings in 1941, which won the Corcoran Gallery of Arts’ Robert Woods Bliss Prize for Landscape. Afraid the prize would be rescinded if she were discovered to be the artist, she refused to go accept it and instead had the certificate mailed. Over fifty years later, however, in 1994, the Corcoran would hold a solo exhibition of her work.
In 1953, at the age of 47, Loïs married Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre Noel, who taught at Haiti’s Centre d’Art. Fascinated by Haiti’s retention of African culture, Loïs’s art began to explore new themes encompassing Haitian life and culture.
“For me Haiti is Africa, for it marvelously expresses the roots, links, and ties to mother Africa. I feel that Haiti, black America, and Africa are one. We must share our collective inspiration, heritage, and strength to achieve universal significance. To that end I have dedicated my life and my career.”
Loïs detested being considered a black artist. Realizing that when referred to as one of the great black artists and black artistry was considered on a lower level than its European counterpart, she said “African-American artists and African artists are not just good black artists. We are artists of the highest esteem and craftsmanship.” After retiring in 1977, she continued to travel, exhibit, lecture and paint. In 1980, she was one of 10 black artists honored at the White House by President Jimmy Carter for outstanding achievements in the arts.
Loïs died on June 9, 1998, and is buried in Oak Bluffs cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard in a family plot. Her paintings grace the collections of many of the nation’s most prominent art museums and are considered a treasure to many collectors.
According to Dr. Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, author of The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones and a former student of hers, “She was determined not to be a homemaker and a mother. She wanted to be able to accomplish and achieve recognition in her lifetime — to be known for the contributions she made to American art history. Art was her life.”
“I trust the time will come, however, when we will no longer need to attach the word ‘black’ to ‘artist’. Let it be that we are artists whose works are accepted universally on the strength of pure merit.”