One of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance movement — and one of the few women artists — Loïs Mailou Jones is currently being honored with an exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through August 23. Ms. Jones spent a great deal of time on the Vineyard. Her talent as an artist was first recognized here, and she had her inaugural exhibition in Vineyard Haven at age 17.
Now, for the first time, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is hosting a small retrospective of Ms. Jones’ work that represents the artist throughout the six decades of her highly successful career. The exhibit offers visitors the rare opportunity to view the work of one of the country’s most influential 20th century painters, encompassing her career from the 1920s through the 1980s.
Almost all of the 20-plus works hanging in a small gallery at the museum are on loan from private individuals and galleries. “People have been really generous in loaning us work,” says Museum Curator Bonnie Stacy. “These are pieces that are not ever available for public viewing.”
The museum has, for a long time, wanted to present an exhibit on Ms. Jones. “We thought it would be impossible, because we don’t own any of her works except for a few examples of her textile designs,” says Ms. Stacy. “It came to our attention that people would be willing to loan us work from their private collections.”
Part of the reason that the museum has had such an interest in the work of Ms. Jones is the fact that her work has artistic as well as historical value. “She is such an important artist, both from the standpoint of Martha’s Vineyard and the world,” says Ms. Stacy. “Her career illustrates the difficulties that African-American artists faced at the time.”
Early in her career, Ms. Jones encountered many challenges as a black artist. She sometimes had a white friend submit her work to galleries, or sent paintings by messenger to avoid revealing her race.
However, overcoming the odds, the artist went on to become one of the leading painters of the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s, and is recognized for her role in the development of African-American influence in the arts, and as a champion of black artists in Africa and the Caribbean. Ms. Jones’ work is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Portrait Gallery, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the National Palace in Haiti.
Ms. Jones was invited to the White House nine times throughout her life, and was honored with commissions by President Eisenhower and an award for her role in the arts from President Jimmy Carter. President Bill and Hillary Clinton collected one of her Island seascapes, “Breezy Day at Gay Head,” while they were in the White House.
The Vineyard exhibit features a couple of vividly colored floral textile designs from Ms. Jones’ early career, along with a number of paintings of Vineyard scenes, and a handful of watercolors depicting life in Haiti — another island that Ms. Jones cherished.
Visitors to the exhibit will find the Vineyard land and seascapes familiar — the Aquinnah Cliffs, the Gay Head Lighthouse, State Beach, the Flying Horses, Menemsha Harbor. But the artist’s style is distinctly her own. Known for her expert use of color, Ms. Jones was known for incorporating cubist aspects and Haitian and African influences into her work.
While the Vineyard paintings capture scenes from around the Island, Ms. Jones was most impressed with the views from Menemsha. Excerpts from an extended interview recorded by oral historian Linsey Lee in the last years of the artist’s life are included in the exhibit. In one she talks about her affinity for the area around Menemsha. “It all started really on this Island. As a matter of fact it started at Menemsha. I loved the little fishing boats.”
Having come to the Vineyard since her childhood, and receiving early encouragement from the community here, Ms. Jones continued to spend time on the Vineyard right up until her death in 1998. The current exhibit demonstrates the strong tie that the artist clearly had with the Island — not just through the work in which she lovingly depicts local scenes, but in her own words, which will resonate with many visitors to the exhibit:
“I just had to come to this Island. It does something to me spiritually, emotionally, health-wise. And it really gives me my start for the winter season. I mean there is something about the Island that is very important, I think, to my life.”
Loïs Mailou Jones at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, through August 23. For more information, call 508-627-4441 or visit mvmuseum.org.