5 Fast Facts: Loïs Mailou Jones

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Designing Woman

Loïs Mailou Jones began her career as a textile artist, designing drapery and upholstery fabrics for prestigious firms in Boston and New York. She incorporated traditional motifs, such as flowers and leaves, as well as more unusual Caribbean- and African-inspired imagery, in her designs.

Detail of Jones’s signature in Ode to Kinshasa

Detail of Jones’s signature in Ode to Kinshasa

2. What’s in a Name?

Jones lamented that the design world was mostly anonymous:[O]nly 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.” Consequently, she shifted her focus to painting—and signed every work.

3. Educator and Mentor

As a member of the art department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 1930 until 1977, Jones influenced several generations of African American artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, and Sylvia Snowden.

4. Out of Africa

Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, Jones documented contemporary African Diaspora art of Haiti, Africa, and the United States. She traveled to 11 African countries between 1970 and 1972, visiting studios and workshops, interviewing artists, and making thousands of slides of their work. These experiences also directly influenced the subjects and style of her future paintings.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées, 1949; Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 23 5/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Gladys P. Payne

5. Best of Friends

On her first trip to Paris in 1937, Jones began her lifelong friendship with French-born artist Céline Tabary (1908–1993). Tabary spent part of World War II living in Washington, D.C. During that time, she delivered Jones’s entry to the Society of Washington Artists exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art because African American artists were forbidden to participate.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­—Deborah Gaston is the director of education and digital engagement at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Celebrating Black History Month: Elizabeth Catlett

Playmates, 1992, Lithograph on paper, 15 ¾ x 13 5/8, Purchased with funds donated in memory of Florence Davis by her family, friends, and the Women’s Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

For more than sixty years, Elizabeth Catlett’s prints and sculptures have characterized the struggle, political turmoil, and bravery of African Americans in the twentieth century. Early in her career, she rejected abstraction that dominated the art world at the time, and instead used social realism and dark expressionistic lines to make her artwork recognizable to her audience. Her major artistic influence was Grant Wood, who urged his students to create work from subjects they knew best. Catlett painted and sculpted African American people, specifically women and poor and working people.

Born in 1915 in Washington, D.C, Catlett was primarily raised by her mother and her grandparents who were former slaves. At the age of 18, she was refused admittance to the Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her race and later enrolled in the design and printmaking program at Howard University where she met fellow student and artist Lois Mailou Jones. In 1940, Catlett became the first African American student to receive an MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa. In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship in 1946 and traveled to Mexico. As a member of the influential printmaking group Taller de Gráfrica Popular, she met her husband, painter Francisco Mora. In 1958, she became the first female professor of sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. Mexico became Catlett’s adopted homeland, and at age 94, she continues to create artwork and divides her time between New York and Cuernavaca.

NMWA holds eight pieces by Elizabeth Catlett. Singing Their Songs and Playmates reflect Catlett’s signature bold, stylized figures and are part of a series the artist created to illustrate a poem by African American author Margaret Walker. Each of the figures in the prints offers a different view of the heroic quality and physical beauty of African Americans.

Singing Their Songs, 1992, Lithograph on paper, 15 ¾ x 13 ¾, Purchased with funds donated in memory of Florence Davis by her family, friends, and the Women’s Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Ali Printz is currently an intern at the Library and Research Center.