Loïs Mailou Jones textile design

By Brooks Robards - September 28, 2006

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998) is a legend for so many reasons. A successful black American artist, world traveler, and art professor who inspired thousands of students, her lifetime was replete with remarkable achievements. Her early work, including more than 30 studies and textile designs, is currently exhibited at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Some of these works are on display for the first time at the museum's Grossman Gallery. The collection represents a 10-year period from 1927, when Ms. Jones graduated from the school of the Museum of Fine Arts and studied at the Designers Art School in Boston, to 1937, seven years after she began her teaching career at Howard University in Washington D.C.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Design for Cretonne Drapery Fabric #15
Loïs Mailou Jones, Design for Cretonne Drapery Fabric #15 "Cabris," undated. Tempera. Photo Courtesy of the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust.

Ms. Jones's foray in textile design is an example of her unusual versatility as an artist. While some of us may recognize her landscape paintings of the Vineyard, her family's summer residence and her inspiration from childhood, Ms. Jones was an artist who knew no bounds. As a painter, she was proficient in watercolor, oil, and acrylic mediums. She also excelled in various artistic disciplines, such as portraiture, illustrations, and still lifes. In examining the breadth of her work, which drew upon the artist's many cultural experiences, one discovers extraordinary freshness and individualism; she never allowed one style to dominate or characterize her work and limit her creativity.

This distinction set Loïs Mailou Jones apart in life, as well. As an African-American woman artist, she frequently encountered racial and gender discrimination that may have broken the spirit of someone less intrepid. But she found creative ways around these obstacles. For instance, in 1941 when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., extended an invitation for entries, Jones submitted the painting "Indian Shops, Gay Head, Massachusetts" through a friend because the museum's policy at the time banned participation by African-American artists. Poetic justice prevailed. Jones won a coveted award for the painting, ultimately giving her the recognition she rightly deserved. Here was Loïs Mailou Jones, an artist who catapulted herself over the racial barrier, and kept right on painting.

The multi-faceted artist Loïs Mailou Jones in front of one of her paintings. Image by MOD Mekkawi / courtesy of Moorland-
Spingarn research center, HowARd university
The multi-faceted artist Loïs Mailou Jones in front of one of her paintings. Image by MOD Mekkawi / courtesy of Moorland-
Spingarn research center, HowARd university
Interestingly, it was Jones's desire for recognition as a serious, progressive artist that led her to abandon a budding career as a textile designer. When she studied with the internationally known German textile designer Ludwig Frank at the Designers Art School, she embarked on a freelance opportunity that led her to work for textile manufacturers F.A. Foster Company in Boston and the Schumacher Company in New York. In an interview that is recounted in the book "The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones" by Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, the artist recalled, "During the drive to the Island, I saw my designs draped in the show windows of interior decorator shops. What a good feeling it was to know that I had designed them! But only the name of the design, printed on the borders of the fabric was known, never the name of the artist who created it. That bothered me because I was doing all this work, but not getting any recognition. And I realized I would have to think seriously about changing my profession if I were to be known by name."

Jones's early experience in textile design was not only the catalyst for her shift to fine art, it also helped establish her later work. Much like her designs, her artistry is often structured on strong color sense and repeating elements. Through talent and hard work Loïs Mailou Jones found new applications for these vibrant and unifying threads, all woven into the fabric that was her life, her art.

"The Early Work: Paintings and Patterns 1927-1937," on view through October 14 at Grossman Gallery at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 230 The Fenway. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Thursday, 10 am to 8 pm; closed Sundays and holidays. Admission is free.