From Haitian, French, and New England landscapes, to an array of costumes, textile designs, watercolors, paintings, and collages, the oeuvre of Loïs Mailou Jones fluidly spans genres, styles, mediums, and themes to convey mastery that should be celebrated by the art historical canon. Jones, the the longest-surviving artist of the Harlem Renaissance, earned recognition in her lifetime through exhibitions and representation in significant museum collections, and she deserves broader acclaim for works that remain wildly relevant today. In particular, her detailed portraits convey emotions and personas that are highly relatable to contemporary viewers, while her landscapes transport us to bustling street city scenes and dreamy beach destinations.
The Bishop Gallery in Brooklyn’s thriving Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood transformed Wednesday night, recreating the Parisian-style salon Jones established in her private studio upon returning to the United States in 1948. Prints of Jones’ paintings are on view at the Black-owned gallery, honoring the exuberance of The Little Paris Group, a short-lived but highly influential community that fostered creativity and camaraderie among Black artists and students who were excluded by the arts establishment in Washington, D.C. Many worked as government employees and schoolteachers, reserving personal time for their artistic pursuits.
The Little Paris Group revival, sponsored by Martell, the oldest of the great Cognac houses, is the final installment of the company’s Soar Beyond the Expected campaign, showcasing Jones and inspiring Black artists who are working today. The joyous evening was sweetened by a selection of three perfectly-balanced Martell cocktails concocted by the vivacious bartender and spirits educator, Ms. Franky Marshall.
An engaged crowd admired and analyzed Jones’ work, her meticulous command of brushstrokes, colors, and composition across watercolor, oil, and acrylic is evident even in the prints, some learning about her for the first time. The night was punctuated by a dynamic and enlightening panel discussion moderated by Dr. Rebecca VanDiver, an Associate Professor of African American Art at Vanderbilt University and the award-winning author of Designing a New Tradition: Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness (Pennsylvania State University Press 2020), and featuring the inimitable singer, songwriter, rapper, actress, and producer, Janelle Monáe.
“When I was doing my doctorate, I became very interested in understanding the nuances of African American art of the 20th century and the different shifting definitions of Black art over the course of the century. And Jones was a figure who was cited but hadn’t really been fully investigated,” VanDiver told me ahead of the panel. “She was a trailblazer in every sense of fashion.”
Born in 1905 and raised in Boston by working-class parents, Jones was the first Black woman to graduate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, only to endure racial prejudices and gender discrimination throughout her career. Jones began designing textiles for several New York firms, and left in 1928 to take a teaching position at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina, where she founded the art department, coached basketball, taught folk dancing, and played the piano for Sunday services. Two years later, she was recruited by the art department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she trained many Black artists, including David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, and Sylvia Snowden, between 1930 and 1977. Jones spent a sabbatical year in Paris, where she began exploring and incorporating African tribal art, a popular motif in Parisian galleries. Her time in Paris was a welcome reprieve from institutional racism in the U.S. In 1953, Jones married Haitian graphic designer Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, who ignited her embrace of vibrant colors and bold patterns on visits to his homeland. In 1970, Jones was commissioned by the United States Information Agency to serve as a cultural ambassador to Africa. She died in 1998 in Washington, D.C.
Jones’ enduring impact on art history continues to inspire Black artists, including Sophia Victor, who is represented by The Bishop Gallery, Emonee LaRussa, Blue the Great, and Dr. Fahamu Pecou, who joined Monáe and Chris Chapman, Executive Trustee of the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust, Jones’ friend and adviser and author of the book, Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color. After the thoughtful discussion, each participant offered advice to fellow Black artists.
LaRussa suggested dedicating an hour a day to your creative pursuits.
“Sometimes it’s great just doing research. Sometimes it’s great just looking at different techniques,” LaRussa said. “I think that we could start using AI and start using technology to be tools rather than hindering us as artists.”
Blue the Great underscored the importance of practice and patience, reminding fellow artists to acknowledge that “the first 10,000 paintings (you create) suck,” winning laughter from the audience.
“Limit who you listen to, like everyone, there’s only one of you. There’s only one path that you can take to be in and … everyone’s going to have advice for you and they’ve never done the things that you’re trying to do,” Blue the Great encouraged. “Believe in yourself because if you fail, that’s just something you have to deal with.”
Monáe built on Blue the Great’s theme, saying “your inner voice as an artist has got to be the alpha and the omega. It has to be king, it has to be queen, and it has to be the loudest voice that you listen to and that you trust. .. When I’m looking in the future and I’m looking at the decisions that I’ve made, I never regret trusting myself. I never regret that. I can’t get mad if I’m using the tools. I’m only going on what I know at this moment and I made the best decision that I could make as an artist.”
“There’s so much interest and focus now on Black art. Everybody wants to buy Black art like it’s the hottest commodity on the market right now,” Pecou said. “So many people are so thirsty and so hungry for that, quote-and-quote success, and we end up compromising the value of what it is that we’re doing in the first place. Making art it’s not about making money. Yes, we all want to make money. We all want to be successful. We all want to be able to take care of ourselves. But what we do, what we create has much, much more meaning than just money.”
Victor shared a quote from her pastor: “He’s constantly saying that life does not give you what you deserve, rather what you fight for. And I think for me, one thing that has been threatened in my work and my journey is just this concept and notion of perseverance, and having the capacity to continue to push regardless of life circumstances.”