Mental Floss

Going Down in History: Lois Mailou Jones

Andréa Fernandes

At the request of reader Gillian, today's post features Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998). The first African American to be given a solo show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (in 1973), Jones had a fruitful career that lasted into her 90s.

1. "If I set out to do something, I'm going to do it. I discipline myself."

Lois Jones inherited her sense of discipline from her father, who attended Suffolk Law School at night for nine years, becoming the first black graduate of the school. Jones herself applied was disciplined in her studies, earning degrees from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Normal Art School, and Howard University. She also took courses at Harvard and Columbia.

2. "I wanted my name to go down in history."

First employed as a textile designer, Jones grew frustrated that she received no recognition for her work. At one point, a decorator told her, "You couldn't have done this, you're a colored girl." Jones realized she would need to change professions if she wanted her name to be known, and she began painting.

3. "Paris really gave me my freedom. I forgot my color. I forgot that I was black."

While working at Howard University, Jones went on sabbatical to Paris, where she produced between 35 and 40 paintings in one year. According to Jones, Paris was where she began to believe she was talented, because the Parisians only noticed her talent, not her skin color.

4. "When you met her standards"¦ she loved you like a mother."

Jones began teaching at Palmer Memorial Institute, a prep school for black students, whose art department she founded. She was then recruited to Howard University's art department, where she taught design and watercolor. By the time she retired in 1977, she had instructed at least 2,500 students.

5. "African American art will always be part of American art"¦ I don't want it to be viewed as something separate"¦"

Jones' fondest wish was to be considered just an artist, sans labels like "black artist" or "woman artist." Over the years, Jones had come up against racial and gender prejudices, sometimes being prevented from entering contests and having awards rescinded due to her race. As a result, she often entered out of town competitions so her race wouldn't be known to the contest judges and officials.

Larger versions of the three Lois Jones works shown above are available: left, center, and right. Fans should check out Howard University's collection of Jones' work and Charles Rowell's interview with Jones. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.