AN INTERVIEW WITH LOIS MAILOU JONES
By Charles H. Rowell
Callaloo, Vol. 12 No. 2, p. 357-378
ROWELL: Dr. Jones, I'd like to begin this interview with questions on your background-your early life and your education as far as the latter relate to you the visual artist, the painter. There are four figures I'd like to mention: your mother, Ms. Carolyn Dorinda Jones, who was a hat designer and a beautician; your father, Mr. Thomas Vreeland Jones, the superintendent of an office building who became a lawyer at the age of forty; Ms. Meta Warrick Fuller, a sculptor; and then a fourth figure, Ms. Céline Tabary, a French artist. These four figures, I have read, had major influences on your career.
JONES: Well, I began with art a a very early stage in my life. As a child, I was always drawing. I loved color. My mother and father, realizing that I had talent, gave me an excellent supply of crayons and pencils and paper-and encouraged me. Yes, I owe a great deal to both of them, my mother and my father, for taking an interest in me. I went to the High School of Practical Arts in Boston, where I could major in art. I graduated from there, and, at the same time, I won a scholarship to the boston Museum Vocational Drawing Class. I went there every day after high school classes, which closed at two o'cloc. I used to take the long walk over Ruggles Street to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Huntington Avenue, where I worked in the vocational drawing classes until the end of the period at half past four. These drawing classes went on for a four year period and led to my getting a scholarship to the Boston Museum School of Five Arts. There, I decided to major in design. I studied with some outstanding people-Alice Morse and Henry Hunt Clark, for example. I also took classes in drawing with Professor Philip L. Hale, Anson K. Cross, and other professors who gave me excellent training in design and in drawing. And I won many awards: most notably The Nathaniel Thayer Prize in Design and The Susan Minot Lane Award, the scholarship which carried me all through the four year period.
At the time I was going to the High School of Practical Arts, I met a very interesting woman, Grace Ripley, a designer who was a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. She had a studio on Boylston Street where she designed costumes for the Ted Shawn School of Dance and a branch of the Bragiotti School in Boston. She felt that I had considerable talent for design. I worked with her on Saturdays and after school, designing costumes and, especially, masks. I think my work with masks accounts for my painting Les Fetiches, my later work. Another of my paintings of masks was reproduced on the cover of Opportunity Magazine much earlier. So both of those paintings grew out of my experience of designing with Grace Ripley. I found that the African masks gave me my best opportunity for studying the mask as a form, and my interest in the mask began very early in my career. The African mask, you will note, is still very important to my paintings today.
When I graduated from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, I won a graduate scholarship to the Designers Art School. Professor Ludwig Frank, an internationally acclaimed designer of textiles, gave me the scholarship. It was there that I learned to make pattern designs and designs for cretonnes that were eventually sold all over the country. I remember taking my portfolio to the F.A. Foster Company in Boston and to the Shumacher Company in New York City. I would submit my portfolio of some twelve designs from which two or three would be selected, purchased, reproduced and sold all over the United States. At that time, I realized that my name was never known, that my name was never published with the designs. As I wanted my name to go down in history, I realized that I would have to be a painter. And so it was that I turned immediately to painting.
One of my first paintings was called The Ascent of Ethiopia. It was one of the paintings that I exhibited in the first Harmon Exhibit, which began, as you recall, way back in the 1920s. It was inspired by a work by Meta Warrick Fuller. I should say that practically every summer of my childhood my mother took me and my brother to Martha's Vineyard Island, where we spent our summer vacations. What a thrill it was to leave the smoky city of Boston (we lived downtown on 28 School Street, across from the big City Hall). I remember our living quarters were on the top floor of the building that my father supervised. My playground was the roof of that building. I can't tell you what it meant to get away from that smoky downtown city of Boston and go to Martha's Vineyard. What a beautiful island: beautiful flowers, fields of daisies and buttercups, the ocean so blue, the lovely beaches, and the white sand. All of these things were inspiring.
It was there that I first began to paint. My first works were in watercolor. But to go back to a very important happening on that island: it was there that I met Meta Warrick Fuller. She always spent her vacations there. Harry T. Burleigh, the arranger of Negro spirituals, spent every summer there too. I will always remember Harry Burleigh telling us as children how much he loved Martha's Vineyard when he couldn't go to Switzerland, where he generally went to write his music. He would go to Martha's Vineyard because the blue of the ocean was like the blue of the lakes of Switzerland. I will always remember that, because the island meant so much to him as an inspiration.
Both Harry Burleigh and Meta Fuller told me this on the beach one day: "Lois, you know, if you want to be successful in your career you're going to have to go abroad." (We had been talking about my career because I was just about to graduate from the Museum School.) Meta related that she had gone to Paris. She had even studied with Rodin. You see, the establishment in this country was not ready to accept us. It's the case in the history of our art. Look what happened to Henry O. Tanner. He couldn't make it in this country; he had to go abroad. The same thing happened to Hale Woodruff. He went to France. And there were many others. This country wasn't interested in exhibiting our work or allowing us any of the opportunities that the white artists enjoyed. I made up my mind at that moment that I would go to Paris.
ROWELL: What did Paris offer other than exhibitions or stipends? How would the African-American painter profit by going to France?
JONES: Freedom. To be shackle free. That's the thing that released you from all of the pressure and stagnation which we suffered in this country.
When I graduated from the Boston Museum School, I went to the director of the schoool and asked if there was any opportunity for me, perhaps, to be an assistant or something at the school. He very kindly looked at me and said, "Lois, we don't have any opportunities here, but have you ever thought to go South to help your people?" That was a shock to me, because here I was a young Boston lady exposed to Radcliffe and Simmons and Harvard and Tufts and all of the big schools. And here I was being told to go down South and help my people. Frankly, I knew about Fisk, and I knew about Tuskegee; but I really didn't know very much about the schools in the South. Therefore, to be told to go South was something I really didn't anticipate. I recall going to a very lovely party at a friend's house and meeting William Leo Hansberry, who had come up to attend Harvard Summer School. I was greatly impressed by him and his intelligence, and he mentioned that he was a professor at Howard University. So I began to think that I should learn a little bit more about the South and Howard University. In our conversation he suggest that I apply to teach at Howard. And so I did. I got a response that I would be considered for that next year, after graduating from the Designers Art School. I had already finished my four years on scholarships at the Museum of Fine Arts, so I was really ready for that opportunity. I received a second letter, however, from Dean Downing, who was Dean of the School of Engineering and Architecture, saying that they had decided finally to hire James A. Porter, who was just graduating, but that I would be the second person to be made a member of the faculty. Of course, I was a little disappointed, but I felt at least that the opportunity would come.
In the meantime I might say that we had in Boston on Sundays a forum at one of the big community centers, which we called "464." I remember it was on Massachusetts Avenue, where all of the young college students would meet to listen to speakers of importance: black scholars, such as Alain Locke and W. E. B. DuBois, and other important people from all over the country. On one particular Sunday afternoon, Charlotte Hawkins Brown was the speaker. At the end of her lecture, she said, "We need you young people in the South. You must think to come down and help us." After that lecture, I went up to her and asked if she had an art department. She said, "Well, we have an art course or two, but we don't have an art department as such." So I asked her if she would be interested in my going down and building an art department there at the Palmer Memorial Institute. She said, "Well, you seem to be a little young." But I did get the position, and I went down South to "help my people."
I recall buying a little car and making preparations for that voyage, which was going to be quite an experience for me. I drove down to the campus of Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, and dear Charlotte Hawkins Brown met me. She said she didn't expect me to come driving down in that snappy little sports car-she warned me that my car was goin gto be kept in the garage, and that I was only to leave the campus when she gave me permission. You can imagine how my feathers fell, because I was thinking of North Carolina A & T College in Greensboro and how nice it was going to be to drive up for the football games. On learning that I was quite athletic and had played on the basketball team in Boston, Charlotte Hawkins Brown made me coach of the basketball team at Palmer. Then she learned that I could play the piano, so on Sundays she had me playing the piano for the Sunday School, and she also had me teaching folk dancing. She had not only brought me there to build an art department: she had made me the jack-of-all-trades. I twas a challenge, but it was fascinating.
I built up an excellent art department. One of the things I did was to invite James Vernon Herring (he was the founder of the Department of Art at Howard University) to come down to give an art lecture to my students. I tso happened, just as he arrived, I had put up a very excellent exhibition of the students' work, and when he came into the studio area and saw the exhibit, he came over to me and said, "We need you at Howard, and I want you there in September." And so it was, in 1930, that he arranged with Charlotte Hawkins Brown to give up my contract after I had been at the Palmer Institute for two years. I then went to Howard University, where I taught design and watercolor painting for forty-seven years. Those forty-seven years certainly were fruitful, because some of the best graduates of Howard passed by me-artists like Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, Starmanda Bullock, and I could go on to name hundreds of others who have come out and are successful today.
In 1937 I had my first sabbatical year at Howard University. That same year I received a fellowship to study at the Academie Julian in Paris. So the dream that Meta Warrick Fuller and Harry T. Burleigh had instilled in me was about to become a reality. You perhaps don't know, but I was Dr. Carter G. Woodson's illustrator for many years; I supplied illustrations for many of his books and for his periodicals, The Journal of Negro History and The Negro History Bulletin. Arthur Schomburg would come down from New York, and we would work on projects together with Carter Woodson. I remember the assignment that Carter Woodson gave me to create the illustrations for the book African Heroes and Heroines, which was to be one of my projects in Paris in the illustration course. The send-off was wonderful. I had my ticket on the S. S. Normandie for September 1, 1937, and both Dr. Woodson and Arthur Schomburg were there to see me off. In my stateroom I found a basket of beautiful flowers from Carter Woodson and a basket of fruit from Arthur Schomburg wishing me well. It was when I walked that gangplank to get on the boat that I finally realized what I was getting into-the acceptance of being a free individual. I was addressed as "Mademoiselle" and ushered to my state room: "This is your table. Let us know if there is anything we can do for you." The service was just wonderful, and I began to think of my dream coming true, of going to Paris, where I would be appreciated as an artist, where I would be able to eat in any restaurant, to go to any theater-and where I would have my works accepted at the important musuems like the Salon des Artistes Français and at the Galerie Charpantier, and Galerie de Paris. I would walk into those openings of the exhibits and see the paintings of Lois Jones hanging beside those of artists from all over France-and all over the world, as a matter of fact. It gave me strength to realize my talent and that I really had the ability to succeed. It was my chance to compare my work with that of the great artists in France. And then the professors at the Academie Julian were interested in me, especially Professor Montézin, whose work impressed me most. I painted very much in his style of Impressionism.
Impressionism was the way I worked, working mostly with the palette knife. I did many studies of teh human figure and many compositions, worked from still lifes in the studios, where the light was so marvelous, and finally painted out in the streets of Paris. And I found Paris so mystic, so beautifully silvery-gray: the old buildings and the parks, the Luxembourg Garden. I thought of Henry O. Tanner, whose career had inspired me to go to Paris, and how unfortunate it was that he had died just about three months [May 25, 1937] before I arrived. It had been my hope to have met him and to have had his guidance. So I missed that. But the spirit in me and the feeling of how he was accepted (his works were hanging in the Luxembourgh Museum) gave me the strength and the courage to work very, very hard. Believe me, I worked from morning to night while I was there that first year in France.
My French wasn't very good, so the Directors of the school, in helping me to get my "critique," appointed one of the students, Céline Tabary, to take over interpreting for me and guiding me while I was there. That was one of the most wonderful things that could have happened. During the first holiday, I remember being taken to meet Céline's family in the North of France, where I probably never would have gone, because I didn't know anybody in the Pas-de-Calais. During that first vacation, her family invited me to come, and it was there that I did some of my best paintings at the village where they lived, called Houdain. Today, Bill Cosby has one of my most beautiful paintings of the landscape of that northern area of France. The paintings that won first awards in the Atlanta University shows, sponsored by Hale Woodruff, were done in that area of Houdain. They were done in the style of impressionism, paintings done with the palette knife, on huge canvasses, works in oils that will certainly be very important one day. So I met the Tabary family who really practically adopted me. They took me in justa s a member of their family, and even today, when I go to France, that family receives me with open arms. Very soon I'll be goin to visit Céline, who now is alone; her husband died three years ago. Before I return to Haiti, I'm goin back to paint with her again, like in the old days, even at my age which is now eighty-three. That is certainly many many years since it all started in Paris at the Academie Julian in 1937.
France gave me my stability, and it gave me the assurance that I was talented an dthat I shoul dhave a successful career. I met Albert Smith, which in a way took the place of my meeting Tanner. Albert Smith left New York to fight for his country in France, and at the end of the war he decided to stay and paint. He went especially to Spain to paint because of the beauty of the light. He loved it there. Then he took his canvasses, the story goes, back to New York and he walked 57th Street, but nobody would show his work. He got very bitter and went back to France, never to return to the United States. He married, as did Tanner, a French lady and ended his life there.
I remember that I had the most wonderful studio-I have to tell you this, for it was a dream really come true. The American University found the studio for me during the first month I was in Paris. It was the studio of my dreams in the artist section of Paris. My studio looked out over the city towards the Tour Eiffel. It had a loft and it had a roof garden. It was really paradise working in that studio of my dreams. Near the end of my stay in Paris, Albert Smith came to see me when I was packing up my paintings to go back to Howard University, and he said: "Lois, please tell me when you go back, what happens to your work. Will you be received?"
I did return to the United States, but I was fortunate. In Boston, the Vose Galleries invited me to have my first show of Paris paintings on the strength of my havign been a graduate of the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. It was well received, and reproductions appeared in the newspapers. It wasn't lasting; I mean, that was about the biggest thing that happened. I discovered that not only being black, but being a woman created a double handicap for me to face. My career in painting hasn't been easy. I've had to work awfully hard. . . doubly as hard as some of the other women artists here in America-e.g., take Isabel Bishop and Alice Neel; I can go on and on. Thse white women made it. I should hav emade it also, but because of my color and the racial situation, it just wasn't possible. The only way I found I could exhibit was to enter the Harmon Foundation Exhibitions which at least gave us exposure. And then after that, there was Atlanta University-thanks to Hale Woodruff, who created the opportunity to exhibit the shows there. My works won many awards. As a matter of fact, I think Atlanta University has at least twelve or fifteen of my works in their permanent collection as a result of their receiving awards.
It's been a pretty hard road, but I haven't allowed it to make me bitter. I've tried to live above that. I think many things were conducive to that. For example, when I came back from France, the first person I met on the campus at Howard University was Dr. Alain Locke, who greeted me by saying that he had followed my career in Paris and that he was using one of my paintings, a street scene in Montmartre, in his book. But he insisted that black artists have to do more with the black experience and, especially, with their heritage. He brought up the fact that Matisse and Modigliani and Picasso and so many of the French artists were getting famous by using the African influence in their work and that it was really our heritage and that we should do something about it. What Dr. Locke said caused me to turn to the black subject, and one of the first paintings I did was Jennie, a very strong impressionistic portrait of a black girl cleaning fish. That painting was used in Alain Locke's exhibit in Albany, which he organized and curated. The painting was bought by the International Business Machine Corporation, who later gave it to the Howard University Permanent Collection.
I did another impressionistic painting of a man about to be lynched, entitled Mob Victim. I was very much disturbed by the many lynchings that were taking place in the United States, and I felt I had to make a statement on canvas about lynching. I needed a model, and I recall walking down U Street and discovering this tall, black gentleman. I remember he had two guitars on his back and he was rather a clochard-looking type with a slouched hat and a long black overcoat, a curious looking individual. But under that hat, I caught the expression of his eyes and his bearded face; he was just the type I needed. I went up to him and asked him if anybody had ever painted his portrait. He didn't quite understand what I was talking about, and I said, "This is my address. Come to this address; I want to make a picture of you." In two days he came to my apartment here in Washington, and I mentioned that I wanted him to pose as a man about to be lynched. I said, "You have to open your shirt and take the look." He said, "But daughter, you know I worked in the South, and my master took me and the other workers in the wagon to see one of our brothers lynched." I said, "Well, tell me about it. How did he look?" "Well," he said, "he just had his hands tied and he just fastened his eyes on the heavens." "Don't move," I said. "That's just the pose." He turned out to be a wonderful model. I remember that I first had a rope around his neck, going up out of the canvas. But that was an overstatement. So I simplified it. I said, "No, we don't need the rope. We just need his expression and the tying of his hands." And so it was. I used him many, many times-once as The Banjo Player and again as Janitor. He was one of the best models that I had.
As I used the black subject, other things developed. I have to paint what I feel. I mean, I wasn't just limiting my work to black subjects. I would still go up to Martha's Vineyard Island, where I met Jonas LIe, the president of teh National Academy of Design, who greatly encouraged me. He liked my paintings of the little fishing village of Menemsha and often offered me his critique. That's where my career began, on that island where I met Harry T. Burleigh and Meta Warrick Fuller. If I see something beautiful in nature, I will paint it. I'm a lover of nature. I have to paint from within. It might be a black subject, but whatever I do has to be in the direction of my best statement: "Excellence." As I used to tell my students, anything I do must be of a caliber that will live after me. That is really my credo, even now.
ROWELL: I want to pause here to ask you a question about two particular paintings. They're portraits: Jennie and Madame Lillian Evanti. Those paintings are two different kinds of esthetic statements or esthetic questions. They are two different styles and subjects. Jennie is more in the tradition of protest. In that sense, it is more akin to Mob Victim than to Madame Lillian Evanti. Will you talk about how Jennie and Madame Lillian Evanti are fixed in your career?
JONES: When I returned from France, I came back into the environment of racial prejudice. I missed all of that elegance which I had known in Paris. One day, when I was painting on the Seine, a gentleman stood there watching me for quite some time. I could tell he was an artist because he was wearing the wide-brimmed black hat and the typical bow tie. He said, in French of course, something about my work. My French was not good enough for me to understand what I said, so I called down the riverbank to my colleague, Céline Tabary, who was painting looking down toward the other end of the Seine River. I asked her to come and tell me what the gentleman was saying. She told me that he was saying that he found in my work considerable talent and that it was so good to see a young person not wasting canvas and brushes. He said that he felt that I would go very far. It turned out that he was the celebrated painter emile Bernard. He was interested in both of us painting on those huge canvasses which we had to bring from our studio over on the other side of Paris, every day, in order to get the same light. When you are working in the impressionistic style, after nature, you have to return four or five times to the same spot to get the same light. Carrying those canvasses back and forth was not easy, so Emile Bernard mentioned that his studio was near where we were painting, and he invited us to leave our heavy paint boxes and large canvasses at his studio at the end of the day. We still didn't know how famous he was, but that night we took our canvasses and our boxes to his studio. I remember going up the staircase and into this wonderful studio which had been the studio of the famous English painter, Turner. He had the table set. I remember, with a little Blue Willow tea set, and the little cakes were there. Then he showed us his collection of Japanese prints. Well, I had always been a great lover of Japanese prints at the Boston Museum, and here were these hundreds that he was showin us. Then he brought out three paintings and said, "Who do you think ddi these?" We both shouted out, "Gaugin!" He was furious, because they were his; he said that Gaugin had stolen his style and gone to Tahiti and gotten famous. And it turned out that he was the Emile Bernard who had worked with Gaugin and Van Gogh in the new school of symbolism in Paris. Here was this wonderful man who, from then on, was our dear friend. He was a great person to guide and help us. He would invite us to come to his studio, where he would have not only painters but musicians and poets and wonderful people for an evening's enjoyment with him. So when I came back to the States I missed all this.
The first summer on my return to the Sttes, I went to Martha's Vineyard. It was there that Narry T. Burleigh introduced me to Madame Lillian Evanti, th eopera singer. This was one of the most important experiences in my life. Here was this celebrated prima donna who had just come back from travelling abroad. She had already been the prima donna at the opera house in Cannes and Nice in France. She spoke seven languages, and she was beautiful to look at. Speaking French with her was almos like being back with Emile Bernard and all of his celebrated friends I had met. At the same time my mother had invited Céline to spend some time with our family. Speaking French just delighted Lillian. When we were coming back to Washington together, we decided to call ourselves the "Three Blind Mice." We were sometimes at my studio and sometimes at Lillian Evanti's studio. And then there were the wonderful dinner parties she would give. She was elegant and she knew how to invite celebrities, ambassadors, and the elite to her home here in Washington, D. C. Her house was really a Mecca for those dinner parties and those delightful gatherings. It was a wonderful thing for me, because I missed all that I had been exposed to in Paris, and here it was being realized thanks to the friendship of Madame Lillian Evanti.
I recall my decision in 1940 to do her portrait. I had done many sketches of Lillian, but I decided that I would like to do her in the costume of Rosina: she had sung Rosina in Rossini's Barber of Seville. It was a beautiful costume. The mantilla was of gorgeous lace; and the bodice, the little bolero jacket, was a brilliant crimson. The rest of the gown was of lace. I had her pose, holding the fan. It was a great experience. I worked for something like three house a day for three weeks on that painting. I worked as an impressionist with a palette knife on canvass. It was a very large painting that I was doing; it was life-sized. A very unusual thing happened while I was doing the finishing touches. The Barber of Seville, the opera, came on over the radio. Of course, when the music came on, Lillian began to sing. There was the sparkle in her eyes and the gestures and everything. It was just what I needed to finish the portrait. I caught the spirit of her, which was just marvelous.
The portrait of Lillian turned out to be one of my best works. I remember that in 1944 it was exhibited in the Baltimore Museum, and it was written up in the papers and got quite a bit of publicity. Later, in February of 1972, the National Portrait Gagllery put on an exhibit called "Washington in the New Era, 1870-1970." How beautiful Madame Lillian Evanti looked hung in the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C. I stood there looking at it and said to myself, "How wonderful it would be if it could be hung here permanently." Not until forty-three years after I'd painted it was it finally hung permanently, thanks to the efforts of the late Max Robinson.
Max Robinson had invested in me and bought a number of my paintings. On one particular occasion, he wanted to buy a portrait that I had done of Lee Whipper, the actor who played in Of Mice and Men. I had done that portrait on my return from Paris, and I had even sent it back to Paris, where it was accepted at Le Salon des Artistes Français at the Petit Palais. It's one of my best works, again impressionism. Max insisted on buying it. I didn't want to let him have it, but he made a promise. He said, "If you let me have that painting, I promise you I will see that your painting of Madame Lillian Evanti is accepted by the National Portrait Gallery with the promise that it will be hung." And so today Madame Lillian Evanti is hanging there. I'm very happy to say that it was recently sent to Tokyo and to Hong Kong, along with works of leading American artists. It was reproduced in full color in one catalogue in Japanese and in another in English. Those are treasured books for me to have in my collection. Both portraits, along with Mob Victim, are my strongest works today.
Some of my other works have gotten into permanent collections such as Challenge America, which was bought by the Hirshhorn Gallery. They came to my studio and selected that painting for their permanent collection. Also, the Phillips Collection liked my Paris works to the extent that they selected two of my French paintings for their collection. I'm also in the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and many others.
ROWELL: Will you talk about some of your early paintings-particular paintings-for example, Rue St. Michel (1938) and Indian Shops, Gay Head (1940)?
JONES: Well, I'll tell you the story about Indian Shops, Gay Head, or do you know the story?
ROWELL: No, I don't know the story.
JONES: When I came back from France, I went back to my dear island, Martha's Vineyard, that summer. I still worked as an impressionist in doing a scene at Gay Head, which was the settlement of the Indians on the up-island area, a very beautiful scene of the teepees and the ocean. I did it at a certain time of day, which gave me unusual light in the painting. That painting was submitted to the Corcoran Gallery's annual show in 1940 and won the Robert Woods Bliss Award. But I wasn't sure that I should let them know that I, the artist, was black. I felt it was best to hold my niche, win several awards, and then appear-all to be sure that I would be accepted. So I receive the award in the mail.
I owed very much to my white friend Céline who would take my paintings to the juries. They never knew that the artist was black. That was very much in my favor. It's been a very unusual career. I would also send or ship my work to the Philadelphia Academy or to the National Academy of Design. Invariably, the works would be hung, adn they would never know that the artist was black. I remember going to the Philadelphia Academy to see one of my paintings which had been accepted. While I stood there looking at it, the guard saw me looking at the painting and said, "I guess you like art, don't you?" I said to myself that he doesn't know that the painting is mine hanging there. [Much laughter.] And so that's how it was way back in those early days; I was exhibiting at all of the big museums, but they never knew that I was black because I either shipped my works or had a white person deliver them. Now you see how difficult it was.
I recall my mother saying at one time, "Lois, don't let anything interfere with your career; set your goals just as you've been advised to by Meta Warrick Fuller and Harry T. Burleigh. But I'm afraid you're getting too many paintings and one day you're going to have all these paintings around you, and you're going to be sitting very lonely in your studio. I think you had better be thinking about getting married." [Laughter.] It jarred me a bit. I'd always been admired by nice gentlemen and, as a matter of fact, I'd always been very popular. But one of the gentlemen had asked me, "Can you cook?" That kind of discouraged me. [Laughter.] But just thes ame, I took my mother's advice, and it just happened that Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel, a very famous Haitian artist, came back into my life.
We had met when we were students at Columbia University in the 1930s. We had separated after summer school, and I hadn't seen him for all those years. Just as my mother had reminded me of the fact that I should be thinking about getting married, Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel came back to this country to do some work at the Pan-American Union. He remembered Lois Mailou Jones and came to my studio. I was getting ready to go back to Paris, where I was to marry a Hungarian artist who was living there. I was afraid because I knew it wasn't going to be something that would be comfortable, bringing him back to live under the racial conditions of the States. Vergniaud Pierre-Noel arrived just in time. I remember I was packing; I was getting ready to go. My mother called me, adn I came downstairs from my studio to this gentleman who she said seemed to have an accent and looked like somebody from the embassy. And there stood Vergniaud Pierre-Noel. The first thing he said after he embraced me was "Have you married yet?" [Laughter.] I said, "No, have you?" And that was it. That year we were married in France. It was a lovely wedding. We married at Céline's home in Cabris. Ours was a marvelous companionship of thirty years: we travelled together, we worked together, and we had joint studios. Now it's been six years since he has passed. I know his one wish is, "go on with your career, Lois; do the things you want to do." I constantly go back to Haiti because he is buried there, and I feel very close to him, and my studio is there. It's there that I do most of my creative work.
I must go now, very soon, back to Haiti, because it is there that I have done work that stems from my travels to Africa. Howard University sent me on a study tour to make a survey of contemporary African art in eleven countries. Today, in the archives of Howard University, we have hundreds of slides that I took, along with all of the notes I made on those African artists. Howard University also sent me to Haiti to make a survey, which was a follow-up of my first trip on my honeymoon there. It just happened that President Magliore invited me to be his guest in Haiti and to do a series of paintings depicting the beauty of the landscape and the people, which were to be exhibited at the Pan-American Union during his offical visit with his wife as the guests of President Eisenhower. I told them at the Haitian Embassy that I would love to accept the invitation, but that I'd just married Vergniaud Pierre-Noel and it was my honeymoon. They said, "That's wonderful. Bring him. We'll give you the suite at the Ibo-Lele Hotel." And so it was that I went to Haiti.
After all the impressionistic feeling of Paris, my life in Haiti was decidedly different: the marketplace with the people in bright colors, the voodoo ceremonies that I went to. I made sketches of the fire dancers and the voodoo symbols. I encountered much excitement resulting from the drumming. All this changed my palette entirely. The colors changed, and the style changed. The group of paintings I did and brought back to the States proved a beautiful exhibit at the Pan-American Union. It was at that time that I was decorated by President Magliore of Haiti. I received the diplôme et décoration de l'ordre national "Honneur et merite au grade de Chevalier." So Haiti is really very dear to me.
ROWELL: When I had interrupted you earlier, you were talking about how you moved from impressionism into another style, another direction. Was that the period in which African art influenced you, or was it Haiti?
JONES: Haiti was first. And after that experience, Africa, as Howard University had sent me to Africa.
ROWELL: Would you talk a little bit more about the Haitian period and particular paintings? I"ve seen two of them; one on the subject of Le Grad Bois d'Illet. And there are other paintings which are obviously connected to African art-some of those on the staircase there, for example Moon Masque. But will you talk first about the Haitian period and what happened to your esthetic sensibility during that time? And then talk about how you moved into the African period? What do you call your art now? Is it a mélange of all these things?
JONES: Right. Going to Haiti changed my art, changed my feelings, changed me. The excitement and the color did something to my palette. I was naturally very anxious for Pierre to take me to a voodoo ritual. I remember the great interest I took in the vèvè as the unga, the priest, would draw with cornmeal on the ground of the temple the vèvè selected for the ceremony. I was thrilled by these beautiful designs. I started introducing those vèvè, representing the various voodoo gods, in my paintings and did a whole series of works which grew out of that exposure.
ROWELL: Is that painting called the VèVè Voodou?
JONES: Yes, the VèVè Voodou III. It is one of a series of paintings that I will show you today in my collection. This silver image I'm wearing as a necklace, which you became very much interested in, is the voodoo god of nature, Leg Grand Bois d'Illet. I've used him in many paintings. It's always very well received; he's very popular.
When Howard University sent me to make the studies in Africa, I naturally had to meet the contemporary artists there. I went to the headquarters of the USIA; and because I was a professor from Howard University, they immediately asked me to give a lecture series. I was prepared: I had my slides on black American artists, and everything was ready. I lectured in each important city that I visited in Africa. That would bring the artists to me, and then I would make my contacts, conduct my interviews, and take pictures of them and their work. So it was a great exchange. As I mentioned earlier, I brought back all of that material which is now in the archives of Hoard University. But what I marvelled at was the beauty of the mask, which had started with me when I was young in Boston when I worked with Grace Ripley. In Africa, I would go to the museums and make sketches and studies from the fetiches and the masks and use them in my creative paintings. I found in many of the masks the importance of the eye. Many of the paintings are built on the beauty of the patterns found in African design. One of the paintings you said you liked-Les Ancestors-was inspired byt he "Dogon" door. All of those many little ancestors represented in the painting are an example of my creative expression. In that painting I work with acrylic, not oil. I have a whole series of recent works which deal with those motifs. One of the series-Ubi Girl from Tai Region-was bought by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for their permanent collection. Let me say here that Barry Gaither, the only black curator on the Boston Museum Staff, has been very instrumental in curating my exhibits and in giving me my first one-woman show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was the first time that a black artist had ever had a one-person show there. It was a retrospective of eighty works from 1930 to 1972. The exhibit was mounted from March 11 through April, 1973. It's one of the most important shows I've had.
After that I was invited to Haiti to mount a retrospective. That was very interesting, because Margaret Burroughs brought to Port-au-Prince from Chicago an entourage that was organized by the late Harold Washington. He sent a beautiful citation to me, and Margaret brought it along with about fifteen people for the opening reception of that retrospective in Haiti which took place the year before Harold Washington died. That citation is very precious to me. And now Haiti offers me much inspiration, because there I find Africa; the Haitians have never lost their ties to Mother Africa. I find it necessary to share the culture on both sides. For me, having a studio in Haiti and working here is really ideal. I get my greatest inspiration when I'm there.
ROWELL: Earlier in our conversation you mentioned two other exhibits.
JONES: Yes. St. Mary's College of Maryland had a grand retrospective of my watercolors, over forty paintings which covered my career. They did a beautiful color catalogue and made a nice presentation to me as an artist. In October, the Brody Gallery-very near the Phillips Gallery-had a major exhibit of my paintings. Both of them received television coverage. This las one, the McNeil/Lehrer Newshour, was national and has brought me much publicity. Television, I think, can be one of the main instruments to really get us out there and let us talk about our work. I think it's our best attack. The Women's Caucus for Art gave me much stability when they honored me at Cooper Union in New York two years ago. That was great. Faith Ringgold, I remember, presented me at that particular time. That was a big moment in my life. Since that time, other happenings of acceptance are coming. The Massachusetts College of Art gave me an honorary doctorate in 1986 and Suffolk Law School gave me an honorary doctorate in 1981. More recently, I received an honorary doctorate from Howard University alongside First Lady Barbara Bush and Mrs. Bill Cosby. Nice things are happening, but late.
ROWELL: I'm going to ask you a trite question. Which of your paintings are your favorites?-and I'm making that plural. I like most of all the two on the Grand Bois d'Illet, Ode to Kinshasa, Indian Shops, Les Ancestors, and Mob Victim. I especially like Ode to Kinshasa and the wtercolor on the Grand Bois d'Illet.
JONES: Those paintings that I really cherish very much? Les Pommes Vertes is really one of my favorite Paris paintings. I also like Rue St. Michele; it is a beautiful painting in silvery grays that I will never forget. In the critique of my 1973 Boston exhibit, the writer said that I captured something of the feeling of Paris in its silvery gray, and misty tones. Those two paintings are very, very important to me. I'm very fond of Les Fetiches. I did that painting in Paris in 1937. I remember taking it down to the Academie Julian to my professors: they all looked at it, they looked at me, and they said, "Mademoiselle Jones, it does not look like you. You paint the Luxembourg Gardens and the Cluny Gardens and the streets of Paris. What are you doing?" So I said, "Well, when you look at Matisse and Picasso and Modigliani and all the others using the African influence, don't you think that if anyone ahs the right to use it I should have the right?" So they said, "If anyone has the right to use it, she has."
There is a wonderful book by Nancy G. Heller called Women Artists: An Illustrated History. It came out in 1987. I'm happy she chose to include Les Fetiches in it. As I have said, women artists are often overlooked, especially black women artists. There is another important book, The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity, which was published in New York by Hector Arts Books. The author is Elsa Honig Fine. She did excellent research on Afro-American art, and again I am well represented.
The little painting you see over there was the beginning of Les Fetiches. I went into the Paris galleries, where fetiches and masks were displayed, and I made many sketches. I went back to my studio and created that little sketch. Then, I blew it up and did the big painting which is in my studio. Les Fetiches has been all over the country. It's a famous piece.
ROWELL: Les Fetiches is, I assume, a major point in your career?
JONES: Yes, Charles, Les Fetiches marks a major point in my career. As I have said, African art started very early with me. I can remember the students at Howard University saying that Professor Porter, Professor Wells, and I didn't appreciate African art. The students thought that they were the ones who were bringing African art into recognition. I told them that in 1937, before they were born, I had painted Les Fetiches and, still earlier, a painting of masks that was reproduced on the cover of Opportunity Magazine in 1928. Another painting entitled The Ascent of Ethiopia was exhibited in the first Harmon Foundation Exhibit. All go far back in time, and all are my favorites.
So now, Charles, in the sixtieth year of my career, I can look back on my work and be inspired by France, Haiti, Africa, the Black experience, and Martha's Vineyard (where it all began) and admit: there is no end to creative expression.
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