Five decades of greatness in Art, Hale Woodruff


Hale Woodruff
Date: 
Sun, 1900-08-26

This date recalls the birth of Hale Woodruff in 1900. He was an African American artist and a true voice of civil rights through his work.

He was born in Cairo, Illinois, but after his father died when he was very young his mother, Augusta, moved the two of them to Nashville, TN. With encouragement from her, Woodruff began to copy newspaper cartoons and images in the family Bible, and at Pearl High School, he was the school’s newspaper cartoonist. After graduation and a brief summer job as a hotel houseboy in Indianapolis, he began art studies at Herron Art Institute.

While there, he became friendly with German-born Herman Lieber who gave him a book entitled “Afrikanische Plastik” by Carl Einstein in 1923. Fifty years later Woodruff still treasured this book. It made him one of the first black artists to study African art intensively and be influenced by it. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance in 1927, Woodruff made his trip abroad, funded in part by a Harmon Foundation award and sales of his Harmon Award-winning paintings in Indianapolis.

Woodruff's European works were in the cubist mode. The Card Players, 1928-29, was inspired by Pablo Picasso's cubist style and Cézanne's Two Card Players, 1890-92. Medieval Chartres 1927 through 1929 is another example. Woodruff's style changed when he returned to the U. S. in 1931. He accepted a position as the first art instructor at the Atlanta University Center where he began to show an interest in regionalism and social realism, dominant styles of the Depression era. Almost half of Woodruff's career was spent in Atlanta where he painted several figure studies, including Troubadour, Cigarette Smoker, and Sharecropper Boy. It was also at this time that Woodruff married Theresa Ada Baker, a teacher from Topeka, Kansas; they had one son, Roy, who was born in 1935. While in Atlanta, Woodruff initiated a national exhibition of works by black artists, which was held annually from 1942 to 1970 at Atlanta University.

Also known for mural painting, he spent the summer of 1936 in Mexico mixing colors and preparing walls for the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He was later commissioned to create murals, which are still intact, at Talladega College in Alabama and the Trevor Arnett Library at Clark Atlanta University. The Trevor Arnett Library murals are called The Art of the Negro (1950). Woodruff's research and absorption of African cultural ideas became the foundation for much of his subsequent work, including such paintings as Carnival and Afro Emblems. In 1943, Woodruff received a Julius Rosenwald fellowship to paint in New York City. There he finished the Atlanta University murals. He soon came under the influence of abstract expressionism, and his style shifted to what he described as "semiabstract, symbolic painting." He continued to paint in an abstract manner for the rest of his life.

Woodruff was a founding member of Spiral, a group of over a dozen African-American artists who joined together in New York City in 1962 to explore their common cultural experiences as black artists. He proposed the name to suggest the group's need to reach out into broader circles. Woodruff was promoted to professor of education at New York University in 1957, and in 1967, the university honored him with a retrospective exhibition of his paintings. In 1966, he showed slides of his Amistad murals in Sierra Leone to descendants of the mutineers who made African and American history.

In 1968, he retired from the university and was named Professor Emeritus. In the spring of 1979, the Studio Museum in Harlem held a retrospective of Woodruff's art, covering 50 years of his work. He died in 1980 at the age of 80.

Reference:
The St. James Guide to Black Artists
Edited by Thomas Riggs
Copyright 1997, St. James Press, Detroit, MI
ISBN 1-55862-220-9

To be an Artist

Person / name: 

Woodruff, Hale