By Barrington M. Salmon
Several painters who studied under acclaimed artist and educator Loïs Mailou Jones recounted their experiences at a recent reception marking the opening of an exhibit that captures her almost 70 years as a painter, designer and sculptor.
The exhibit – which debuted on Nov. 12, days after what would have been Jones’ 110th birthday – brought together a coterie of admirers, friends and former students at the Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center to honor a woman who New York Times art critic Holland Cotter described as “an iconic figure, and an important historic link in a path-breaking generation of Black American artists.”
“My reason for going to Howard University was to study watercolor under Loïs,” said Master Artist Bernie Brooks. “She was a strict disciplinarian but I took every watercolor and design class with her. She was almost a mother to some students and antagonist to others … she had complete mastery of watercolor but she was also a phenomenal oil painter.”
Brooks’ wife, Gwen Aqui-Brooks, agreed.
“She was no-nonsense in her class. She was an excellent teacher with a dangerous red pencil which she used to write on your painting,” Brooks joked. “She was a stickler for presentation. If you got an A in her class, you worked for it. She was also interesting because she kept up with the times. She always wore very bright clothing and had red and blonde hair.”
Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said she made two visits to the cultural arts center, both to see the exhibit and offer her support.
“What drew me back here was the simplistic beauty of the place,” said Clyburn, who has served on the FCC since 2009, becoming the first black woman to hold that position as well as wield the gavel as chairman. “It highlights the art in a special way. It’s not pretentious. The simplicity and understated nature of the presentation draws you. It allows you to digest it.”
“That’s what brought me back.”
Jones, a Boston, MA native who taught at Howard for 47 years, left behind an enviable body of work that includes a mélange of Cubist, African, Caribbean and Impressionist-inspired watercolors and oils, stained glass, sculptures, motifs and other works of art.
Exhibit curator Barry Blackman said he felt good knowing that an exhibit of this quality, facilitated by local businessman Phinis Jones, is accessible to residents living East of the Anacostia River.
“A lot of times we see these collections in a museum; we don’t see them in our community,” said Blackman, whose career as a curator spans almost 25 years. “I wanted it to be as informative as possible. She had several phases represented in different rooms including her Martha’s Vineyard phase, her Africa period, and the main room has examples of her Haitian and French periods.”
Jones, a Mississippi native who’s called the District of Columbia and Southeast DC home for 47 years, said he’s been collecting art since the mid-1980s.
“I love art and there are probably four or five different artists (whose work I collect) but I love Loïs. She was an African American working in an era, knocking down doors when I was in Mississippi.”
Born in Boston in 1905, Jones – influenced and nurtured by her parents – trained at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and came to prominence at a time when issues of race, discrimination and gender bias held their sway.
Panelist Connie Spinner recounted some of the difficulties Jones endured, including the subtle bias and racism in Boston and the overt and mean-spirited racism she faced when she taught in Sedalia, North Carolina, where she established an art department at black prep school Palmer Memorial Institute.
Jones chafed against the racism she faced and like countless black writers, novelists and musicians, including James Baldwin, Richard Wright and her friend Josephine Baker, Jones emigrated to Paris in the 1937. Relishing the freedom from racial prejudice she found in France, Jones spent many summers there over the next 20 years, her former students and panelists said. Her Haitian influence developed after she married Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël in Cabris, France in 1953 and spent considerable time in Port Au Prince.
“For more than 50 years, she enjoyed consistency as a painter, teacher, book illustrator and textile designer,” said Connie Spinner, a DC-area educator and head of the School Community College Prep Academy. “She influenced art on three continents, North America, Europe and Africa, and she had 70 group shows and 21 one-woman exhibits before the Civil Rights movement.”
Jones influenced fellow artists and others during the Harlem Renaissance. A quote attributed to her said: “I felt that my greatest contribution to the art world was proof of the talent of black artists.”
A vigorous question-and-answer session followed the discussion, with guests asking a range of questions including queries about buying quality fine art, becoming collectors, as other questions about Jones’ impact, recognition, life and legacy.
“This is a personal exhibit with personal connections,” said Keyonna Jones-Lindsay, director of the Center. “My dad had a chance to meet Ms. Jones. I recognized paintings in the other room from when I was young and my dad lived in an apartment. This exhibit motivated me to put up my husband’s art around our house.”
“Barry’s an amazing curator. I reached out to him. It’s been a great, amazing collaboration.”