“Hail to Hale: Homecoming the Hale Woodruff Family Collection” offers an intimate look at the artist’s art and life.
Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) is “one of the most important figures in 20th-century African-American art,” according to the authoritative reference work, African Americans in the Visual Arts, and this fall, Kansas City-area art lovers will have two opportunities to experience his accomplishments. One is a big traveling show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, showcasing Woodruff’s vivid murals for Talladega College, a masterwork of his career. Coinciding with that show, the American Jazz Museum will offer a more intimate look at the artist’s art and life in the exhibit, “Hail to Hale: Homecoming the Hale Woodruff Family Collection”.
Exhibition curator Sonié Joi Ruffin has gathered together more than 25 original Woodruff works of art and personal items that have never been viewed publicly, and appear courtesy of his descendants. In 1934 Woodruff married Theresa (“Ted”) Barker of Topeka, Kan., a teacher at Lincoln High School in Kansas City. It is through the extended family—the Barker, Cary and Hughes families—and their continuing ties to this region that these works come to the Jazz Museum.
The arts have been a respected part of everyday life in this extended family for many years. Woodruff’s father-in-law, John David Barker, was a published poet and collaborated on an artwork for the family’s cabin at Lake Placid, Mo. According to Woodruff’s great nephew, Kansas Citian Shawn Hughes, “[Great-]Uncle Hale was quiet, but when he spoke, people listened. He encouraged the kids to draw as a hobby, and he recognized them as talented.”
A sneak peek in mid-summer with Shawn Hughes and Mamie Hughes, Woodruff’s niece, suggests viewers are in for a treat. In an untitled 1961 drawing dedicated to Woodruff’s nephew, Leonard Hughes, black, gray and white forms counterbalance each other along a central axis, supported by two leg-like appendages. Black lines outline faceted shapes that recall carved African masks, as well as early 20th-century Cubist and Futurist works.
Chi-Wara, an undated vertical painting with dynamic yellows, reds and oranges, refers to carved headdresses or masks made by the Bamana people of West Africa that represent an antelope. The movement suggested by Woodruff’s slashing lines brings to mind the Bamana use of these headdresses in ritual dances.
Born in southern Illinois, Woodruff grew up in Nashville, Tenn. After attending the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis in the late teens and 1920s, he traveled in France from 1927-1931and studied for some time with the eminent African American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner. On his return to the U.S., Woodruff taught art at Atlanta University 1931-1945, spending 1936 in Mexico working under Diego Rivera, and teaching as a visiting professor at New York University 1943-1945. He joined the faculty at NYU in 1946 and continued teaching there until 1968.
As African Americans in the Visual Arts sums it all up, Woodruff “pioneered the black experience in art as a painter, muralist and teacher.” He continues to be a source of inspiration to artists today, and the Jazz Museum presentation will include a tribute component to Woodruff.
Ruffin and Shawn Hughes have invited Lonnie Robinson from Memphis, Al Hawkins from Chicago, Najee Dorsey from Atlanta, and Kansas City-area artists Selina O’Neal, Melena Rose Brown, Michael Toombs, Alexander Austin, José Faus, Harold Smith, Michael Brantley, Clifford Doyle, Daniel Edwards, and poet Glenn North to contribute works that pay homage to Woodruff and address his continuing relevance. As Ruffin notes, ‘’Hale Woodruff did more than create and teach the rudiments of art. His artwork continues to encourage artists to reach a superior level of expansion with their talent, to communicate their visual story with a sense of quality and dignity.”
In partnership with the Black Archives of Mid-America, the museum will present a variety of free public programming during the exhibit’s run, including a screening of the movie, Amistad, at the Gem Theater.
“Hail to Hale: Homecoming the Hale Woodruff Family Collection” opens Sept. 26 and continues at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St, through Feb. 28. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission to the exhibit in the museum’s changing Gallery, is free. For more information, 816-474-8463 or americanjazzmuseum.org