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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

An Island Discovery

By:Adjoa Burrowes

Labor Day weekend, I traveled by car to New England, stopping in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, in Rhode Island and then onto Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My friend and I took the ferry boat one day to Martha’s Vineyard. The Atlantic Ocean was a beautiful calm blue that afternoon, dotted with an occasional sail boat or other small vessel. A warm wind brushed our faces. The weather was divine.

After debarking, we entered the small town of Vineyard Haven and stopped at the ticket depot to gather maps and other guides. To my surprise on one of the walls was a photo of the pioneer 20th century American painter, Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998). Below the photo was a two page narrative from her, describing the significance of the island to her artistic career entitled “My Career Began on This Island.”

Jones was a highly prolific and successful artist and teacher. Her art works spanned three continents- Africa, North America and Europe and much of the century. Since 1937 she had been represented in more than 70 group shows and 21 one-woman exhibits. In a 1997 Ebony magazine article she was quoted as saying “after a 75-year quest for recognition… 'At 90, I arrived.”

A Family Connection

Lois Jones’ family had a strong connection to the vineyard. She writes in her narrative, “My Mother’s mother was one of the first settlers on this Island. Her name was Phoebe Ann Ballou. She lived in Vineyard Haven, and she worked for rich people named Hatch. She was like a member of the family, and they loved her, really. I am named for one of them: Lois, Lois Hatch. She was with them for many years, and she had much foresight because she bought a lot of land here in Edgartown, and it was very unusual in those early days for a woman of color to do that.”

Painting In The Garden

Jones would return summer after summer to paint on the Vineyard. In Boston, Lois Jones’ mother was a beautician and had a beauty shop with a friend. One of her private customers, Mrs. Gibson, lived in Vineyard Haven. She wrote, “Mrs. Gibson discovered that I was talented and she said I must come and paint in her garden. She had a wonderful set of Japanese books of handpainted flowers. That is very important in my career because she said, “Let Lois come over and paint in my garden and then she can borrow these books.”

“I used those flowers for my cretonne designs and those cretonne designs were printed and sold all over the country, as far as California. It was all going back to Mrs. Gibson who lived in Vineyard Haven.” These early textile designs are a testament to Jones’ exceptional versatility as an artist. Interestingly enough it was these textile designs that eventually launched her into a fine art career.

Critical Career Connections

Lois Jones was influenced early on by outstanding artists of the day including distinguished sculptor Meta Warwick Fuller and Negro spiritual arranger, Harry T. Burleigh, who advised her to go to Europe. Jones wrote, “My career was really formed on this island when I was about 17 and advised by Harry T. Burleigh and Meta Warwick Fuller … they both said, “Lois, you know you’re not going to make it in this country. It’s true that you are very talented, but because of the situation, you’re not going to have any success with your career. You are going to have to go abroad.” Lois went to France to study in 1937 on a fellowship.

An Island Escape

Martha’s Vineyard served as a refuge for her however, even though she noted that in the early years none of the hotels would take in Black people and that you couldn’t buy land in certain places. She wrote “But I still think that Martha’s Vineyard was an escape, as far as feelings between races went, compared to some other places that you know had prejudice. Here it was more open”.

Her narrative ends with a description of the rejuvenating effect the Island had on her and her choice of medium. “I really have painted every summer here on the island and preferably in watercolor. It seems to be my pet medium here. It does something to me spiritually, emotionally, health-wise, and it really gives me a start for the winter season.” “It was always refreshing to come here.” she concludes.

It was a wonderful experience for me to set foot on the same ground where Lois Mailou Jones started her illustrious career and to see with my own eyes the Island flora, fauna and landscape that inspired her early, Postimpressionist work. I’m inspired by this determined woman, who in spite of tremendous obstacles, carved out an outstanding career as an artist and touched the lives of whole generations of students (Jones taught at Howard University from 1934 to 1977). Given her stance in American art history, a mere framed photo and two-page typed narrative on the walls of a ferry depot hardly do her justice.

Adjoa Burrowes, artist and children’s book illustrator was a student of Lois Mailou Jones at Howard University.

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