Hale Woodruff is an artist that inspires me. Using his art as a form of social activism, he contributed to the development of African American art as both an artist, and as a distinguished art educator. Many of his works are displayed in the permanent collections of universities across the country.
Some of his most famous works are the “Amistad Mutiny” murals at Talladega College. I love this body of work for several reasons. First, it portrayed noteworthy events that commemorated the transition from slavery to freedom. Secondly, the remarkable series, full of expression, color, and detail was the first creation of the Amistad story in the twentieth century.
In 1938, the historically black Talladega College in Alabama, commissioned Woodruff to paint a series of murals for its newly built Savery Library. The college was founded in 1867, shortly after the Civil War, by a group of former slaves led by William Savery.
Inspired by this history, Woodruff actually painted six murals between 1939 and 1942. The first series of three portrayed significant events in the journey of African-Americans from slavery to freedom: “The Mutiny on the Amistad,” “The Trial of the Amistad Captives”, and “The Repatriation of the Freed Captives.” The second series titles were, “The Underground Railroad”, “The Building of Savery Library”, and “Opening Day at Talladega College.”
Today, the exceptional murals remain relevant symbols of the centuries-long struggle for civil rights. These paintings were recently restored, and toured nationally from July 20, 2013 through October 13, 2013, before returning to their permanent home in Alabama.
Another of Woodruff’s works that I particularly enjoy, is titled “Returning Home.” It is a woodcut print of African-American shacks that Woodruff created to express his anger over these living conditions.
Born in Cairo, Illinois in 1900, Woodruff’s mother taught him drawing basics at a young age, after which his interest in art soared. In high school he was the cartoonist for the school paper, and after graduating, enrolled in the John Herron Art Institute. Unable to pay the tuition, he left the art institute before graduating, and pursued his own artistic path. His career took off in 1926 after he won second prize in an art competition. This publicity exposed his work to a local ladies literary club, who set up an exhibition for him, and from there, the sky was the limit for him.
Woodruff left America in 1927 to study in Paris. There, he connected with Henry Ossawa Tanner, and met many other artists and cultural leaders. He returned to the U.S. after four years abroad and was offered a teaching position at Atlanta University. During his time there, he created many significant art opportunities for his students. In 1934, he worked in Mexico, on a mural with Diego Rivera and his crew; followed by the 1939-42, completion of the six “Amistad Mutiny” murals at Talladega College in Alabama. In 1943, he was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, which enabled him to leave the South and study in New York.
In New York, Woodruff was appointed associate professor of art at New York University; and along with his teaching duties, he completed several large mural projects including a commission with Charles Aston to paint murals on black history in California for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in Los Angeles.He was also one of the few black painters to be employed by the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
By 1955, Woodruff’s work was completely abstract and based on African motifs. His new style of work met with much success, and he continued working in mostly abstract for the rest of his career. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Newark Museum, and numerous other institutions collected his work. He died in 1980 at the age of 80.
Hale Woodruff is an artist that inspires me.