Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998)
African-American artist who broke racial barriers
Building a successful career as an artist is a difficult challenge for anyone. Lois Mailou Jones created a successful career for herself and broke many color barriers for others in the process.
Jones was born in 1905 to parents who aspired to make the most of their lives. Her father was a superintendent of an office building in Boston, but he attended law school at night for nine years. When he was 40, he became the school’s first black graduate. His accomplishment demonstrated to himself and his family that it took hard work but that you could set goals and achieve them.
Her mother was a beautician who designed and sold hats as a sideline. As a hairdresser she sometimes was hired to come to someone’s private home, and Lois went along and particularly remembered seeing the fine art that hung in the households.
Another influence on Jones’ art work was the fact that her summers from the ages of 4-17 were spent on Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandmother worked for a family there and the Jones’ stayed with her until they eventually saved for a house of their own. Jones loved the natural setting and the colors of the area, and they influenced much of her work.
After attending high school in Boston, she received a scholarship to study art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1923-27. She was one of only two African American students accepted at that time. When she graduated, she had hoped to be able to work there as a teacher but she was turned down and told she should move to the South where she could teach art to African Americans.
For a time, she stayed in Boston working in textile design but she sometimes had to have a white friend submit work in order to make a sale, so eventually, Jones decided to move South and teach. She started at a prep school in North Carolina before moving to Howard University, a primarily African American college in Washington D.C. Jones had always been very disciplined about her work (a trait she must have picked up from both parents), so she was able to maintain a focus on her own work while still devoting time and attention to her students.
In 1937-38 she had an opportunity to spend a year studying in Paris; this not only influenced her work but it showed her a world where the color of your skin was much less significant than what she encountered n the U.S. She returned to Paris each summer until World War II.
In the United States, Jones’ work was beginning to be recognized, but she encountered many instances of discrimination. At Washington’s Corcoran Gallery in 1941, she was not permitted to enter a competition because of her race; a friend submitted a painting for her, and it won. Two years later, Jones came forward and admitted to having created the work. The Smithsonian also rejected one of her entries in a competition because of her skin color.
Throughout this time, Jones continued to teach at Howard, and by 1973, there was finally a shift in acceptance. That year she became the first African American artist to be given a solo show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; it must have been very satisfying to return home and finally get her due.
Lois Mailou Jones died in 1998 but during the 1990s many museums and galleries had begun displaying her work, and she gained recognition from mainstream audiences.