Robert Jones had the daunting task of settling the estate of the renowned African-American artist Lois Mailou Jones after she died in 1998 at the age of 93. Imagine his amazement at rooting around in the basement of his cousin’s Washington, D.C. home and uncovering a cobweb-draped box that contained a collection of masterpiece textile designs Ms. Jones had created 75 years before.
On Wednesday evening, Francine Kelly, executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts enthusiastically presented that collection of textile designs, now framed and hanging at the Virginia Weston Besse Gallery through Sept. 3.
Coordinated by Featherstone, the Lois Mailou Jones Trust and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the exhibit is an impressive body of work from 1927-1930. Linsey Lee, oral history curator at the museum, raved about the exhibit. “When I first saw this show in Boston, I knew we had to get it to the Vineyard,” Ms. Lee said, explaining that the designs were used for wallpaper and fabric. “It’s very exciting.”
The artist’s mother brought young Lois and her brother down to the Vineyard each summer, and the Island eventually became her home.
Ms. Lee introduced Barry Gaither, curator and director of the National Center of African-American Artists, special consultant to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and an enthusiastic advocate of Ms. Jones.
Mr. Gaither knew Ms. Jones first from her body of work, and stayed with her at her house near the Camp Ground. “Lois used her imagination and willfulness. We first met in 1959 and I had already read about her work. She was a truly seductive person.” Together they visited sites she had painted, from Vineyard Haven to Menemsha.
A dynamic speaker, Mr. Gaither led the audience of over 40, darting from one vibrant painting to another, explaining, expounding and exploring the art.
“This show is design for textiles, a narrow range of work where she introduced ideas that influenced her through her whole artistic career,” he said. “She remained eternally youthful in her imagination. She was forever reinventing herself and her art.”
In textile design, Mr. Gaither explained, the challenge was to create a design which must have “infinite duplication — it repeats at regular intervals.” He used different pieces to show the artist’s creative talent at bringing visual satisfaction to a pattern, while still incorporating the ‘repeatability’ of the work. He explained that textiles, because they are printed on cloth, are less brilliant than paper, and offer a slightly muted tone. Color and pattern were important to Ms. Jones and she managed to bring that to her tempera and paper works. “She could have made a living in design,” he said, yet she moved beyond textile design before she was thirty.
Mr. Gaither held his audience spellbound, not only by the work on the walls, but by the expressive detail he added to each piece, noting its creativity and influence on her later work.
He described her personal motivation: “She sought to master the technique of textile design. She wanted her name out there. It mattered to her to be known.”
Ms. Lee had interviewed Lois Mailou Jones for her Vineyard Voices 2 book; the tape was playing nearby. “I have to become a painter if I want my name to be known,” Ms. Jones is heard to say.
“Painting is a field when you become known by the quantity of your work,” Mr. Gaither said. Ms. Jones had the dual challenges of being a black woman in a field dominated by white men. “Lois never accommodated herself to restriction. She always saw herself measured against art universally,” said Mr. Gaither.
Textile designs proved transitional work at the beginning of her career. Ms. Jones developed an interest in the exotic, which romanticized Africa and the Caribbean. She painted pieces that made reference to Cubism. “Wonderful play and counter play,” said Mr. Gaither. “She would take a motif and break it down, reinvent it and re-invigorate it.”
He noted the influence of geometry, ideas that repeat, an undulation which emphasized the pattern of interest. “She began to establish a vocabulary of patterns.” He explained how Ms. Jones managed a community of colors, expressed as motifs brought together in a great array. “These designs represent the fertile mind she brought at the beginning of a career in painting, dealing with serious subjects and places in the world.”
Her later work synthesized these aspects with a passion for color and shape and rhythm and design all brought together. “I consider her one of the most important 20th century American artists,” said Mr. Gaither.
Ms. Jones founded the art department at Howard University. “Lois always was committed to doing the best for her students. She took what was new from them,” he explained, as she kept her youthful attitude toward art. A Howard professor for 47 years, she challenged and prodded and got the best from her students. “She took teaching and learning seriously.”
Featherstone’s Francine Kelly summed up the event. “It’s a real honor to have Barry Gaither here. He is a widely renowned art historian, particularly on African-Americanartists. It was significant, as he knew her personally and her whole body ofwork. And if you look into Lois Mailou Jones, you find that Barry Gaither is considered the expert on her work.
“Traditionally we have sit-down lectures at Featherstone, but this was innovative in that he walked around the gallery and was able to relate and speak to individual pieces. It took people by surprise who expected to sit down for a lecture. He encouraged people to look at wonderful patterns in her early work and relate them to her overall body of work.”
Ms. Kelly added, “It was an honor to have the pieces here, and a special honor to have him speak on her pieces so professionally.”
Cornell professor Dr. Cheryl Finley will speak tonight, Tuesday, August 26, at 7 p.m. on Lois Mailou Jones in the World. The gallery is open daily from noon to 4 p.m. Prints are available for sale. The show hangs through Sept. 3.