It’s an unpretentious house on Quincy Street that might easily be overlooked if not for the small sign attached to the front fence. From the late 1940s into the 1970s, this was a house of inspiration, a house of boundless creativity, a house of art.
Loïs Mailou Jones was already internationally famous when she moved to Brookland. Renowned for her vibrant, mesmerizing paintings, her acclaimed fabric designs, and her decades of teaching art at Howard University, she was looking for a place to set up a new studio.
Born in Boston in 1905, Jones showed an early affinity for art and was encouraged by her parents. An excellent student, she graduated from Boston’s High School of Practical Arts, then won a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, one of only two African American students. She began a career in textile design, but soon learned that was not the best way to make a name for oneself. It happened while visiting Martha’s Vineyard:
During a drive to the island, I saw my designs draped in the show windows of interior decorator shops. What a good feeling it was to know that I had designed them! But only the name of the design, printed on the borders of the fabric, was known, never the name of the artist who created it. That bothered me because I was doing all this work but not getting any recognition. And I realized I would have to think seriously about changing my profession if I were to be known by name.
From that point on, Jones concentrated on a career in the fine arts. She formed and chaired the art department at the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina, and two years later went to Howard University to teach design and watercolor painting. Instructing and guiding and providing opportunities for her students and fellow artists of color became a lifelong commitment for Jones. She was also profoundly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and brought the new focus on the black experience to some of her early paintings.
Loïs Mailou Jones was industrious, commited and an incredibly hard worker, allowing herself very little free time for anything other than her art and her students. She also continued to expand her own horizons. After teaching at Howard for seven years, she took her first sabbatical and fulfilled a lifelong dream. She went to Paris, where she had won a fellowship to the Académie Julian.
There she dove deeply into Impressionism, creating landscapes and street scenes with sensuous color and accomplished technique. Paris also provided Jones with something else, an escape from the racial discrimination of the United States. As other black expatriates had experienced, the sense of acceptance and inclusion that Paris provided was invigorating and came out in her art. Switching to a modernist style, in 1938 she produced the bold “Les Fetiches,” which became a key work of black identity.
In Paris, Jones met Céline Tabary, a fellow artist who would become her lifelong friend. When she returned to the United States, Jones was confronted by the same sort of discrimination she had left when she escaped to Paris. The American fine art establishment was still remarkably racist at this time, well behind their European counterparts in accepting the work of black artists. Céline Tabary, who had come to visit Jones in DC and then was stuck here when WWII broke out, helped Jones solve that problem. The Corcoran Gallery did not accept the work of African American artists for their annual juried show, so Tabary brought in Jones’ submission. It was accepted and won a prize. Jones then asked the gallery to mail her award, rather than accept it in person. One color barrier had rather surreptitiously been broken.
Jones helped Tabary get a teaching job at Howard University, and then the two of them formed what they called the “Little Paris Studio,” a salon dedicated to providing local artists of color training and an outlet to show their work in the group’s annual exhibits.
Jones had converted the attic level of her home at 1220 Quincy Street into a studio, which is where the group met weekly to critique each other’s work. Part of her goal was to encourage and promote public school art teachers and showcase their work.
In 1953 Jones married Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël, a Haitian graphic designer, and she began to make regular pilgrimages to his home in Haiti. The vibrant colors and patterns of the art there influenced her greatly, as did the art in Africa, where she also often travelled.
Jones continued to teach, paint, and inspire until her death in 1998. Her output is substantial, and many of her works hang in the country’s premier museums. The complexities of her work and life are too broad to cover in a brief outline, but I hope this taste of her colorful, dynamic art will inspire you to discover more about her. There are plenty of good sources available. I’ve listed a few below.
One final note: I wondered if Loïs Mailou Jones was ever inspired by Brookland, her home for so many years. She was. One painting, titled “1220 Quincy Street” is not a view of her house, but the view from her house. Those two homes still exist across the street. For this painting alone, Brookland owes a debt of gratitude to Loïs Mailou Jones.
Benjamin, Tritobia Hayes, The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones, Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco, 1994.
Seaman, Donna, Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists, Bloomsbury USA, 2017