Jones's paintings show rich pattern of success | Drapery Connection

By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent

Artist Lois Mailou Jones had two strikes against her: She was African-American and a woman. Born in Boston in 1905, she also had a few points in her favor: a thriving family that spent summers among the black elite on Martha's Vineyard, her own daring, and talent.

That talent, in its earliest stages, can be seen in ``Lois Mailou Jones: The Early Works: Paintings and Patterns 1927-1937," at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Jones grew up in Roxbury and studied design at the Museum School. After graduating, she quickly found success as a textile designer; most of the works on view parade the jazzy, bold, Art Deco-influenced patterns she created for slipcovers and draperies.

Although she became an internationally recognized painter, Jones kept her hand in design. She taught design and watercolor at Howard University from 1930 to 1977. She also traveled widely, taking in the sights and aesthetics of other cultures. She died in 1998.

Curator Joanna Soltan has included two paintings in the show, both created after 1937. The canvases bracket the stylistic spectrum of Jones's career and point back to their sources in her patterns, which she sold to fabric houses in Boston and New York.

The canvas "My Mother's Hats" (1943) nods to her mother's livelihood as a milliner and cosmetician. Painted in rough strokes, the work is in the style of a Cezanne still life, with a vase of flowers surrounded by a bevy of ladies' hats, some cut off by the frame. It's a vibrant painting in warm tones, and it's typical of Jones's early canvases, which follow in the footsteps of the Post-Impressionists.

As Jones moved -- to France, then to Haiti -- her work took up the visual drumbeats of the cultures in which she lived. "Ubi Girl From Tai Region," a 1972 painting, pulses with vivid tones, crisp forms, and layered, organized patterns -- clearly the work of an artist with a background in design. It features the ebony profile of what might be a carving of a woman; right beside it floats a woman's visage, dramatically criss crossed with face paint. Stylized, almost diagrammatic faces hover below, as bold geometric patterns shuffle in the background.

African masks were an early theme in Jones's work. When she was in high school, she apprenticed with costume designer Grace Ripley and fashioned African-style masks and costumes for the dance company headed by Jacob ' s Pillow founder Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis . Even before college, Jones straddled Western and non-Western aesthetics, and both show up in her textile patterns -- in lush, blossoming, Impressionistic bouquets and strong geometries.

Jones started designing professionally a year after college, at a time when the US textile industry was striving to come up with an American aesthetic. Her audacious ``Totem Poles" (1928) features vertical yellow-red streaks of totem poles sporting fierce, masklike visages and simplified figures. The work was before its time: American designers didn't start to utilize Native American motifs until the mid- 1930s.

Most of the works in the exhibit are gorgeous, with lush colors and flamboyant motifs. Cases filled with drawings she made even before entering high school show an unerring eye and a fascination with patterns. The professional designs light up the gallery. ``Design for Cretonne Drapery Fabric #41, Georgette" is fecund with pink, purple, and blue blossoms spilling over green-blue foliage. ``Design for Cretonne Drapery Fabric #29" parades with orange parrots, which nest among palm leaves amid drooping bunches of grapes.

Textile designers were a largely anonymous group, which was good and bad for Jones. As a black woman, she could work behind the scenes and would sometimes submit patterns through a white designer friend rather than risk having them rejected because of her race. But she craved recognition. In 1937, on sabbatical from Howard, she went to France for the first time and discovered there a relative disregard for racial distinctions. There she gladly gave up her anonymity, refocused her career on painting, and became one of the most important African-American painters of the 20th century.

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