"Full Circle": An Interview with Dr. Chris Chapman, Executive Trustee, Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust

Article excerpt

On September 22, 2011, I interviewed Dr. Chris Chapman, Executive Trustee of the Loïs Mailou Jones and Pierre-Noël Trust, when he was at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi to deliver the opening presentation at the Loïs Mailou Jones Exhibition which was on display for six weeks, September 22 to November 6, 2011. An anesthesiologist, Dr. Chapman was Jones's godson as well as her confidant for many years and has authored an essential guide to her life and work, Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Color (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2007).

PCK: In the preface to your book, you say that Loïs gave you a "nine year graduate course in art history." Would you tell us how she did that?

CC: When my wife Marilyn and I met first with Loi's, she gave us a tour of her home to see if we wanted to rent the guest house which included access to the basement and the entire house. My wife came back and said you're going to love this house; she has paintings on all the walls. I said if you like it, we will move in.

When I met Loi's, she told me she was a famous artist and I would be the man of the house, to take care of the car, the yard, and deal with any men that came to the house because her husband had passed away in 1982. 1 agreed and left for work at Georgetown Hospital. When I returned later that day, I found cameras and TV trucks outside Loïs 's home and when I went inside she invited me to sit down and listen while she was being interviewed by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a reporter for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS and also known as the woman who desegregated the University of Georgia in 1 96 1 . After the interview, Loïs said, "Do you believe me now, Chris?" and I replied, "Yes I believe you and I have the utmost respect for you."

Loïs, the professor she was, said, "I will teach you the history of each painting as they hang in the house, then on trips to the Island [Martha's Vineyard where Loïs's family owned a home], I will teach you history from my perspective of art exhibitions. When you first walk into the house, you see Monsieur Cadet Jeremie, an oil painting that I did of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Haiti. This canvas represents security for me and a man protecting the home." The care that Lo'is took in placing her works in different rooms was a revelation to me, but I later learned that she thought of all her works as her children and she was very interested who bought them and where they went.

In her foyer hung The Ascent of Ethiopia, a reminder of her mentor Meta Warrick Fuller, whose life-sized statue, The Awakening of Ethiopia, showed an African American woman unwrapping herself from mummylike bandages. Also in the foyer, Loïs kept strong paintings like Bebella and Still Life with Fish. In the dining room, where Loïs spent most of her time, there were street scenes from Paris, which reminded her of the freedom she had to paint such scenes of the city. Loïs also had four stilllife paintings in the dining room to represent the impressionist inspired works she did at the Académie Julian during her first Howard University sabbatical in Paris in the 1930s. But in the living room, she always kept her strongest, most emotional painting, Mob Victim (Meditation). The living room was surrounded by two other smaller rooms, one for her Haitian art and one for the African art, which symbolized the ties and love she had for those regions.

My art history lessons continued, then, when we packed her car with paintings for the 1 0-hour car ride to Martha's Vineyard. The first couple of years I would drive and just listen to Loïs teaching me about art. The conversations were so important and fact-filled that we started recording our sessions over the years. These conversations would always start with Loïs discussing her communications with Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden and his wife, John Biggers, Augusta Salvage, Jacob Lawrence, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain Locke, pioneers in charting black history. …