The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s special exhibition “Work of the Soul: Meta Warrick Fuller, Lois Mailou Jones, Delilah Pierce, and Olive (Cutie) Bowles” offers an unprecedented opportunity to see the art of four significant Black female artists with strong ties to the Vineyard together for the first time.
“The themes of this exhibit are connection and inspiration. We chose these four artists because of the span of their work (the earliest dating to around 1920, the most recent from the 1980s), and their shared story of finding a place of refuge from the city and inspiration in the Island,” says Anna Barber, the museum’s manager of exhibitions and programming. “Some achieved international acclaim, while others’ work is known only on the Vineyard. But it was the Island, specifically Oak Bluffs, that connected them all.”
The oldest of the four was Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), a groundbreaking sculptor who spent summers at the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs. Born to a middle-class African American family in Philadelphia, Fuller was one of only a few Black students at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts to which she had earned a scholarship. Fuller went on to study in France, and upon returning to the United States in 1902, W.E.B. Du Bois asked her to create sculptures representing African American history and their contributions to the country.
In “Woman Leaning on Wall,” c. 1920, you can see the influence of Auguste Rodin, with whom she had worked, in the weightiness of the model’s draped tunic and seriousness of her countenance. Barber says: “Fuller met a young artist named Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) at Shearer Cottage. While at the beach together one summer day in the early 1920s, Meta spoke to Lois about the importance of traveling abroad, as it offered more opportunities for Black artists: ‘When Meta told me she had met Rodin and worked in his studio, I was inspired to no end, and I made up my mind very definitely — that’s what I am going to do: I am going to France to study.’”
Jones herself would go on to become an internationally recognized artist and educator. Hailing from Boston and born to a working-class family, she went to Boston’s prestigious School of the Museum of Fine Arts and then to New York, where she designed textiles for several firms. You can see her penchant for rich, colorful abstraction in “Design for Cretonne” in the exhibition. In 1928 she founded the art department at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina. Two years later, Howard University in Washington, D.C. recruited her to join its art department, which she headed for nearly 50 years. Jones’ art reflects everything from African-style masks to landscapes, which she painted outdoors, to many Haitian scenes, such as “The Game, Luly, Haiti” from 1985. She married Haitian graphic designer Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël in 1953 and traveled to the country annually. The government honored her with the National Order of Honor and Merit for both her work and the painting classes she taught there.
Barber says about Jones, “Throughout her life, she would continue to return to the Island every summer. While at Howard, Lois met and befriended fellow artist and educator Delilah Pierce (1904-1992), and the two frequently painted together. Delilah began visiting the Island in 1940, purchased a home soon after, and, like Lois, became involved in the Island community, teaching art classes and serving as a founding member of the Cottagers.”
Pierce lived her life as an educator, artist, and curator and, like Jones, her work ranged from figurative, such as the inspirational portrait in “Hope,” 1952, to nature-inspired abstraction such as “Nebulae #6” from 1982.
According to the article “Island Artist Cutie Bowles Growing Posthumous Fame” in Arts & Ideas magazine, Bowles (1912-2001) was born in St. Kitts with something like 23 siblings. In New York in 1945, Cutie met and married banker and photographer William Bowles. Barber says, “She left the city to come to the Vineyard in the 1940s. Entirely self-taught, she said: ‘I came here because I wanted to find a place where I could be myself, develop, and paint.’”
Bowles’ “Lesson,” c. 1956, recalls the great Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence in color scheme and flat, abstracted figures. Bowles creates an almost auditory rhythm with her cascading piano keys and open sheet music that sweep across the picture frame. Rhythm permeates the dancers in the piece of the same name from 1982 as the men all leap from side to side in open-winged, hawk-like positions, making a fascinating abstract pattern with their tuxedoed bodies.
“For the first time, this exhibit will bring together work by four artists — some never before exhibited — whose lives intertwined throughout the 20th century,” Barber says. “For them, the Island offered something they could always return to — an ocean breeze, a particular light, and a community.”
“Work of the Soul: Meta Warrick Fuller, Lois Mailou Jones, Delilah Pierce, and Olive (Cutie) Bowles” is on view from August 3 through Oct. 11 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, 151 Lagoon Pond Road, Vineyard Haven.