Hale Woodruff

Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) was a trail-blazing artist and college professor. And yet in 1969, at the end of nearly 40 years in the university, Woodruff confessed that academia had consumed his life and drained his creativity, that teaching and creating required a careful balance he never managed to attain.1

The search for stability kept Woodruff moving between cities and continents, positions and projects, styles and schools. Instability permeated the social, political, and economic conditions of black Americans during Jim Crow, and the lives of the artists who, during the 1920s and 30s, struggled to forge a system in which their creative labors could yield critical and economic support.

After years trying to make a living and afford formal training, Woodruff won a prize from the Harmon Foundation in 1926. He used it to fund a trip to France, where lived one of the expatriated Black painters that Woodruff most admired, Henry Ossawa Tanner.2 Woodruff opened up to to him about the fraught and stress-filled efforts to support himself and his art.3 He would stay in France until 1931 when he reluctantly accepted a teaching position at Atlanta University.  There he encountered the realities of working in the rural South: limited employment opportunities and patronage, a bare-bones arts infrastructure, and widespread segregation, discrimination, and inequality.4 Several of Woodruff’s famous woodcut prints depict this reality in vivid, hard-lined scenes of rural shantytowns, lynchings, and bodies traversing structures on the verge of collapse.

Woodruff responded to these conditions not only artistically, but also by founding the hugely impactful Atlanta Annuals in 1942. The annual show offered Black artists-in-training not only spaces to show and establish themselves, but also crucial sources of income, scholarships and a network of contacts 5 – luxuries that had not come easily to Woodruff in his own artistic career. Charting this stabler path for his students required years of sacrifice and emotional labor that extended far past the classroom walls. Woodruff formed deep and valuable ties with his students, not only in Atlanta, but also later at New York University, and through the Spiral organization he started with Romare Bearden. Many went on to have successful careers themselves and more still remember the hours, dollars, and cooked meals their committed teacher provided when they faced hard times.

The artists of Woodruff’s generation were called upon to, as well as felt empowered to, create art that was socially conscious and could uplift fellow Black people. Woodruff’s work navigates the demands of Alain Locke’s concept of the New Negro to be locally relevant, yet universal, personal but represent the community, aesthetic and activist, black and American all at once. It was a reality he didn’t simply depict but also experienced.6 It drained him to be constantly shoring up the boundaries between art, work, and life. Rather than a neutral subject for the artist’s eye, reality was something that constantly got in the way of his art. Perhaps for this reason, after Atlanta Woodruff  went north to New York, where he could be anonymous among urban crowded streets, spend more time in his studio, and focus less on figural or sociological work and more on the abstract expressionist style he explored for the rest of his days.7

[1] Albert Murray, “Oral History Interview with Hale Woodruff: November 18, 1968,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-hale-woodruff-11463

[2] Theresa Leininger-Miller, New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011).

[3] Hale Woodruff, “My Meeting with Henry O Tanner,” Crisis 77.1 (1970): 7-12. Digitized version: https://books.google.com/books?id=VJZf0Q3XtPgC&printsec=frontcover&rview=1&lr=#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[4] Winifred Stoelting, “The Atlanta Years: A Biographical Sketch,” in Hale Woodruff: Fifty Years of His Art, edited by Mary Schmidt Campbell, 9-28 (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1979).

[5] Donald F. Davis, “Hale Woodruff of Atlanta: Molder of Black Artists,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 69, No. 3/4 (Summer – Autumn, 1984): 147-154
. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717619

[6] Murray, “Oral History Interview with Hale Woodruff: November 18, 1968,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-hale-woodruff-11463

[7] Corinne Jennings, “Hale Woodruff: African-American Metaphor, Myth, and Allegory,” in A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans, edited by William E. Taylor and Harriet G. Warkel, 77-98 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996).

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