An Artist Who Listens
The N.Y. fabric artist Martha Mae Jones built a rich (and successful) life by bouncing between art and political activism while traveling the globe. Throughout it all, she says, her creations, and her life choices, have come from heeding inner voices.
By MELANIE EVERSLEY
On a sunny, winter morning on one of the top floors of a Harlem brownstone, Martha Mae Jones moves between colorful scarves and pieces of clothing hanging from walls and from the ceiling. It is a good place to be, sitting on the been-there-done-that side of a life that includes sought-after fabric artist, clothing maker, aide to two major civil rights leaders, and international traveler.
Though her global adventures happened at a time when she had little money, Jones always happened to find herself in colorful situations: studying weaving in Sweden, French in Paris, or in Haiti during the fall of its dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. When asked how this daughter of rural America managed to navigate these experiences, she is at a loss to provide a real answer. “In a way,” she says, “my life has been like somebody’s out there helping me.”
Now 78, Jones alternates between residences in Harlem, New York, and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a haven for Black artists. “Like they say, your life is already planned,” she says, in a delicate and fluid accent that is hard to place, but is probably a reflection of her worldwide experiences. “I just kind of go with that as much as I can. I always talk about putting my little boat in that big old ocean and as long as I can keep it up, I’m good.”
Jones goes wherever the fabric pieces tell her. “I have no idea how they’re going to relate to one another,” she says. “The fabrics themselves have little conflicts going on.”
These days, Jones expresses herself mostly through fabric art that she makes from canvas, archival glue, and cloth that she’s collected from thrift shops over the last 30 years. One piece can take weeks or even months to finish. Jones’ aim is to make people remember home, significant moments in their lives, and other important parts of existence when they see her work. “I call myself an ‘intuitivist’ in terms of my art,” says Jones, whose outfit, even down to her cloth face mask, reflects the perfect fall and well-placed seams created by someone who loves fabric.
Jones makes her collages from this pleasantly cluttered studio in Harlem and an equally comfortable and cluttered “she shed” behind her home in Vineyard Haven, a small town on Martha’s Vineyard. In both places, she keeps newspaper clippings and art posted on the walls. In Vineyard Haven, country music blares; in the Harlem studio, white noise feeds her creative process. Somehow, Jones’ collage pieces with vibrant, out-of-the-ordinary colors look more like paintings than pieces of fabric glued to canvas. Lately, much of her collage work conveys the boxed-in buildings one might experience in a city or the small, narrow shotgun houses of New Orleans.
As in her life, Jones just goes where the fabric pieces tell her. “I have no idea how they’re going to relate to one another,” she says. “The fabrics themselves have little conflicts going on in there.” Speaking for one piece, she says, “‘Is she going to put me next to you? Oh my…’ “
Last summer, Ann Smith, executive director of the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, made Jones’ work the subject of an exhibit at a movie theater. Despite the quarantine and social distancing, people came to see Jones’ work. “She certainly has a following of people who know her journey and have seen her transform,” Smith says.
Jones grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, on a farm in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland while the area was still segregated. While her mother worked as head chef at a nearby yacht club, Jones spent her time picking tobacco and figuring out the most efficient way to eat watermelon. But she always had an eye for design. She remembers rearranging the living room furniture and dressing a bit differently from everyone else. She chose her best friend in first grade based on the dress the little girl wore.
The “Perry Mason” TV show fascinated her and she idolized Della Street, the fictional lawyer’s secretary. Hoping to become a secretary herself, Jones earned an associates’ degree at what was then Maryland State University (now the University of Maryland). After graduating, Jones went to work as an executive secretary for the United Planning Organization, a nonprofit founded by late antipoverty leader James Banks.
This was when Jones’ “real life” started, she says. “It was the beginning of a consciousness and a desire to work for the betterment of people’s lives. I met people from all over, professionals from all over the country—sociologists, psychologists—coming to help poor people do their lives. The philosophy was that poor people know what they need to live and they just needed someone to help them out.”
In 1965, a friend moved to the small city of Verdun, France, about 160 miles east of Paris, and Jones went to visit her—a move that may have led to her lifelong wanderlust. While overseas, she stopped through Greece, Israel and beyond in what stretched out to a year-long respite. On a boat trip, Jones befriended another passenger, who told her that, because of racism, she would have a hard time finding a place to live in Paris. The passenger was kind enough to refer her to a friend, who rented Jones a room in her Paris home.
When Jones learned that an elite Swedish weaving program had filled all 12 spots, she wrote the school on her own behalf. In response, the school created a 13th spot, and offered it to her.
With only modest savings to sustain her, Jones lived frugally, spending her time in French language classes, walking everywhere, and visiting lots of art galleries. After a year, Jones again yearned for more tangible, altruistic world of nonprofit organizations, politics and civil rights. On the encouragement of a friend, she enrolled at The New School, then known as The New School for Social Research, and studied sociology. She went on to earn a master’s degree at New York University.
When another friend asked Jones to help her run her clothing boutique in Greenwich Village, Jones readily agreed. “I have a kind of confidence when I take on stuff,” she says, “that it’s going to be what I want it to be.” One day, Jones got a chance to observe a pattern-maker, and had a pivotal moment. “She was sort of skipping from the store with a smile on her face and she was happy,” Jones recalls. “I said, ‘I want that.’ ” Little did she know that was exactly what was about to happen, in spades.
Soon after Jones signed up for a class in weaving, she became obsessed. She was particularly captivated by the ceremony of preparing her materials, dressing the loom, and making sure everything was precisely in place before the weaving begins. Many weavers find these tasks tedious (“There are a lot of steps, a lot of mathematics,” Jones says), but for Jones, these preparations made her feel in control. “Somehow, this was meditative,” she recalls.
At one point, Jones learned that a master weaver in Sweden, a global center for weaving, had room in her class as well as living space to rent, and she was off to Stockholm. Before long, she had learned about an ultra-exclusive Swedish weaving program at Handarbetets Vanner, a Swedish association (meaning “friends of handicraft”) for the advancement of textiles and design. Unfortunately, the program had a four-year waiting list and admitted only 12 students per year. Undaunted, Jones wrote a letter to the school’s administrators, trying to persuade them she was qualified. Two weeks later, the school informed her that it created a 13th spot in the class and was offering it to her.
After completing the program and returning to New York, Jones opened a shop to sell her shawls, coats, and other natural-fiber clothing. In honor of her stroke of luck in Sweden, she named the shop The 13th Loom. The clothes, which Jones describes as “classic with an edge,” sold for anywhere from $125 to $500 apiece. Before long, she was drawing prominent customers such as local newscaster Melba Tolliver and the late songstress Phyllis Hyman.
While in New York, Jones learned that Dorothy Height, one of the now-deceased organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, was looking for a director of communications. Jones took the job and, while keeping her shop going, worked for Height for several years. During this stint, Jones not only absorbed media duties, she also made Height several hats—an article of clothing that became such a signature for Height that President Bill Clinton mentioned it during a Height eulogy in 2010.
Through her work in textiles, Jones got to know Anna Deavere Smith, who was a kind of fellow polymath (in Smith’s case, a playwright, actor, director, and poet). Smith later wrote a poem dedicated to Jones entitled “Weaver.” When published in Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot magazine, the poem featured a photo of Smith—sitting at the beach on some rocks in a dress woven by Jones with noticeably natural colors: eggshell, mauve, mustard, sky blue and olive. The poem reads:
“Silks and wools once fine in neat market shelves now
Becoming this tangled skein.
From her pelvis, hips, thighs, calves, toes.
She weaves the woman, she weaves.”
“Do you see that fabulous spirit in there?” she asks, her eyes smiling at the fabric. “I always find at least one or two.”
By 1985 Jones felt exhausted by the years of whirlwind creativity mixed with civil rights work, and she was craving another escape. She closed The 13th Loom and set her sights on Petion-Ville, Haiti, a suburb of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. She spent her time with other weavers working on fabric stretched between trees, eating fresh mangos, and practicing her patois with a neighborhood boy. In 1986, after spending a year in a rented room, Jones noticed that her hosts were often up late at night, embroiled in furious discussions. When she asked what was going on, they told her that dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had just fled Haiti for self-imposed exile in France.
Soon, the place to which Jones escaped for some rest became a chaos. She often heard guns in the streets; friends from the States called to ask if she was all right. Within a few weeks, she was on a plane back to New York. She picked up her weaving again, on her home loom, but again felt the pull of politics and civil rights. Before long, she was working with Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. By 1991, Jackson’s campaign was history and Jones decided, once again, to return to her first love: art, this time aiming to focus on it full-time.
Way back in 1972, when Jones was a very young artist, some friends brought the late artist and Black art curator David Driskell to Jones’ home, then in Greenwich Village. The group was supposed to go out for dinner, but they were having so much fun talking they settled for what was in the refrigerator. Jones and Driskell went on to become close friends.
“I’d ask him to adopt me as his godchild and he’d say, ‘Girl, you are too old,’” Jones recalls with a chuckle. Yet Driskell couldn’t resist playing along. “He’d introduce me and say: ‘This is my old godchild.’”
Driskell died last year of COVID-19, but he had already played a pivotal role in Jones decision to expand into fabric collages. Jones says she feels spirits in fabric and in her work, and those spirits help guide her. She never knows what something is going to be until she starts working on it. Then, at some point, she gets the message that the work is complete.
Today, Jones divides her time between her life in Harlem and Vineyard Haven, where she bought a home in 1995. Her fabric collages, which have been her focus for the last decade, now sell for between $1,000 and $6,500. She’s done well over the years, selling several at shows where other artists are happy to sell one.
Jones’ studio stands near Harlem’s leafy Convent Avenue, not far from the church where Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in 1959. During my visit, Jones at one point holds up a dress that most people would call tie-dyed but she calls “spirit-dyed.” (In addition to using the rubber bands that are customary for tie-dying, Jones, for her own twist, winds the fabric around itself.)
“Do you see that fabulous spirit in there?” she asks, her eyes smiling at the fabric. “I always find at least one or two. I always think, ‘You didn’t choose this dress; that dress is choosing you because that spirit is relating to you.’”