On the occasion of her ninetieth birthday, Loïs Mailou Jones reflected upon her artistic longevity and the obstacles she had confronted. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “There was the double handicap: being a woman and being a woman of color. I kept going on, with determination. As I look back, I wonder how I’ve done it.” Jones had indeed faced daunting gender and racial discrimination, yet her stalwart resolve empowered her to persevere and succeed.
The Boston-born artist displayed creative promise at an early age and, with her parents’ encouragement, began her training at the High School of Practical Arts in 1919, advancing on to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1923 to 1927. While the curriculum at the Museum School covered life, freehand, and perspective drawing courses, she gravitated towards design as a major. She enrolled in graduate studies at Boston’s Design Art School, eventually becoming a freelance textile designer. Jones realized, however, that textile design had its limitations: “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.”
Armed with new resolve, Jones applied to her alma mater, the School at the Museum of the Fine Arts, for a teaching position. Her request was denied, the rejection tendered with the director’s suggestion that she “go South to help your people.” Initially, Jones balked at the notion, but after attending a lecture delivered by pioneering educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown at a local community center, she began to reconsider. Jones convinced Brown of the necessity of art instruction at Palmer Memorial Institute, a preparatory school for African American youth in Sedalia, North Carolina. Jones’s two-year residency, 1928 to 1930, in the rural community was her first encounter with the segregation and racism particular to the American South. She established a thriving art department at Palmer, which soon attracted the attention of another artist-educator, James Herring, who recruited her to Howard University. Jones would remain at Howard for forty-seven years, teaching exceptional students such as Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, and David Driskell.
In 1968, an article in Ebony magazine remarked on Jones’s creative curiosity, reporting that “she has devoted her life to a quiet exploration—a quest for new meanings in color, texture and design.” That innovative spirit is borne out in Africa, dating to 1935. Executed in vibrant jewel-like hues, the work depicts three sharply-defined figures with chiseled features. This trio’s symmetrical, elongated features and expressionless eyes recall similar visages found in African masks, a recurrent aesthetic component in Jones’s oeuvre. Jones’s colleague at Howard, Alain Locke, had urged African American artists to create images that would contradict pervasive racial stereotypes of the period. He also exhorted African Americans to connect with their “ancestral legacy.” Ultimately, Jones hoped that race and gender would no longer circumscribe her art or achievements, vowing, “I’m an American painter who happens to be black.”