The Martha’s Vineyard of artist Lois Mailou Jones
We weren’t sure where we were going. My travel buddy’s smart phone was offering directions by car, not on foot. But Oaks Bluff was a walkable little town, and I was determined to find the grave of one of my favorite artists Lois Mailou Jones on her beloved summer getaway, Martha’s Vineyard.
We were headed along a dirt alley near a lovely gray-shingled house (like most of the others on the island) when an African American man talking on his phone came out on his long porch. “You look lost,” he said. And we were; we were afraid we were headed not along a road but into his backyard.
“We’re looking for Oak Bluffs Cemetery,” I said. “I’m looking for the grave of Lois Mailou Jones.” I mentioned her name hoping that he’d recognize it and tell me some great stories about knowing her. He didn’t acknowledge her name, but he nicely directed us around the back of his house to a paved road. “Near the library,” he said.
We found the cemetery, but I had no idea where the grave was located. So we started looking, me on one side and my travel buddy Kristin on the other. Fortunately, she found the grave quickly near the front of the cemetery on the left facing away from the street.
The headstone was sparse, not some over-the-top elaborate monument to the artist. I wondered if that’s what she had requested, just a simple mention that she was an “American artist.” On either side were equally simple headstones for her brother and mother.
Martha’s Vinyard off the coast of Massachusetts was one of the stops on my New England vacation to Boston, Portland, Brimfield and Kennebunk. I knew I could not explore the island without finding the places where Jones had set up her easel to paint. First, though, I wanted to find out where she was buried.
Jones died in 1998 after nearly 80 years as an artist, and even longer as a visitor and summer resident of the island. She had come here for the first time as a child with her parents and her older brother John Wesley, away from the “office buildings and smoky city” of Boston – as she described it in an interview in 1993 – to “the blue of the ocean … the field of buttercups and daises” on an island where her grandmother had saved enough money to buy houses in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.
For a black girl in the early 20th century, I’m sure it was a little piece of heaven. Here was where she met Dorothy West, a childhood friend who would become a writer and whose house we visited on the island. It was off a road that now bore her name and near the house of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
In our interview, Jones had talked about the beauty of the island, her family’s home near the sea and how she had been inspired. My trip on the ferry opened up the beautiful waters of Vineyard Sound probably just as Jones had seen it numerous times – a view repeated often as we rode buses and walked the docks in the towns.
Buses offered the best transportation across the island, but we had to put up with some very insolent and un-accommodating drivers (there was at least one who was generous, helpful and friendly). One blond-haired driver was downright mean and insulting (when we mentioned him to another young woman who appeared to be a regular, she knew exactly who we were talking about). One summer visitor had complained in a letter to the newspaper editor about the ferry operators.
Despite that, the island itself was a relaxing presence – laid-back, unhurried and almost abandoned by the summer folks who had gone back home to school or work. My purpose was to enjoy it while searching out the history of African Americans who had long lived here and the haunts of Jones who had put her love for it eternally on canvas.
Here’s what she painted and what I found:
Coal Wharf, 1941
This wharf was near the dock in Edgartown, and Jones appeared to have been looking through a scruffy building out onto boats on the bay toward Chappaquiddick. The Old Sculpin Gallery on the harbor has the watercolor in its collection and was preparing to show it the week after I left. A very large Seafood Shanty restaurant with a small building near the dock now holds down the spot.
Coastal Road, 1950
I’m not sure which coastal road this painting represented, but one of the most beautiful views of the water is Beach Road from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown. The road curves along the coastline – just as in this painting – just as you approach Oak Bluffs, which seemed to be the island’s hub. The view over the water is one that’s not soon forgotten. Across the street was a huge golf-course-green grassy park with a gazebo that was the front yard to a series of large and lovely homes.
Fishing Smacks, Menemsha, Massachusettes, 1932; Menemsha Shacks, Martha’s Vineyard, 1948
Jones apparently set up her easel often in Menemsha, a fishing village on the southwest coast. There, I saw a few fishing boats but saw more of what looked like pleasure boats moored near a restaurant where I had a delicious lobster roll (minus the mayo) for lunch. On another spot near the water – where one seller was hawking relatively inexpensive lobster dinners – I came across stacks of lobster traps. I wasn’t sure if they had been retired forever or for the day.
Jones painted a new version of the Menemsha fishing boats in 1983. An aside: scenes from the 1975 movie “Jaws” were filmed here, and actor John Belushi is buried nearby in Chilmark.
Indian Shops, Gay Head, Mass, 1940
This painting was among the first to win a major award for Jones. Because she was black, she could not submit it as her own in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 1941 competition, and had a friend Celine Tabary, whom she had met in Paris in the 1930s, to do it. The award was later mailed to her. In 1994, the Corcoran officially apologized to Jones.
The town had long been known as Gay Head until it was changed to its original Native American name of Aquinnah in the 1990s. It is the home of the Wampanoag and Mashpee Wampanoag peoples. Located on the southwest coast, it is known for its colored clay cliffs, but the color was more gray with a dab of light orange.
This land is my land, too
Jones said her family had a long history on Martha’s Vineyard, especially in Edgartown. She built a home there in the late 1980s on a lot that had been bequeathed by her parents to her and her brother.
“My grandmother was one of the first settlers of Martha’s Vineyard Island,” she said. “She was very farsighted. She bought a lot of land, especially in Edgartown. So we had all this land.”
Jones’ home had a private art gallery (she opened the Lois Mailou Jones Studio Gallery in 1988), she said in our interview, and she exhibited her own works and those of others.