Saturday, July 21, 2012


HALE WOODRUFF, AMERICAN ARTIST 1900-1980 (from Georgia Encyclopedia)
Hallelujah for the INDIVIDUAL! Each and every one of us possesses CREATIVITY and has a STORY that is UNIQUE to tell.  Sometimes an individual comes along who has the capacity to express his/her STORY and SOCIETY'S too! This is the case of American artist HALE WOODRUFF, who lived 80 years from 1900 to 1980, and told less well-known or publicized stories of the U.S. SOCIETY beautifully and dramatically in his 50 years of painting.
UPRISING OR RISING UP? In 1939, Hale Woodruff was commissioned by Talladega College in Alabama to paint murals for its library. What resulted were two trilogies. The first trilogy being comprised of these three events (1) the 1839 mutiny of Africans on the ship Amistad, then (2) the courtroom trial that followed and concluded (3) in favor of the "captured" Africans and gave them the "rights" to return to their country of origin. This image is taken from the first mural that depicted the mutiny. The second trilogy is explained later in this blog.

Hallelujah for MUSEUMS, and specifically for my hometown's HIGH MUSEUM here in Atlanta, Georgia, which  currently has on exhibit six of HALE WOODRUFF's powerful murals depicting an aspect of African-American life I had not previously seen. As a European-American, I often see only images that reflect and re-enforce my own ethnicity. Hence, my great appreciation for PUBLIC SPACES that engage me and my similar neighbors in expanding the realms of our consciousness.

Below, I respond to the High Museum exhibit entitled "Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College."

There are the early works showing how HALE WOODRUFF developed his painterly skills and crafted his story-telling abilities, which included travels to France and Mexico. If I understand correctly, HALE WOODRUFF, even as a young artist, had a social consciousness and painted with those concerns in mind--being a minority in a country that restricted his social and political rights. When he was born in 1900, the United States was segregated, and African Americans couldn't vote despite the Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1870 granting African-American men the right to do so. Many lived in desperate poverty without a chance for quality education that would advance them economically, and there was always the imminent threat of being harmed or lynched. 

DOCUMENTING JIM CROW DISCRIMINATION.  This 1944 painting expresses Hale Woodruff's response to poverty experienced by African Americans in Mississippi.
PICKING COTTON.  Painted in 1936, Hale Woodruff documents a way of life for many African American citizens.
MOREHOUSE COLLEGE. Painted by Hale Woodruff in the early 1940's,  this painting of Morehouse College, an African American Atlanta college established in 1867, two years after the Civil War, speaks of the artist's interest and involvement in and support of higher education for African Americans.
STRANGE FRUIT.  Hale Woodruff documented in his art the violent executions of African Americans that were frighteningly common and frequent in the United States. This 1935 linocut was submitted to a show in New York themed on the lynching of US African American citizens.  (I saw an incredibly painful and disturbing exhibit at the MLK Center on this topic in 2002--Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America). (This image here is an altered portion of the original linocut, by Hallelujah Truth) 
A SENSE OF AFRICAN HERITAGE.  A theme that Hale Woodruff returned to time and time again was imagery from Africa. He was influenced by the "Dean" of the Harlem Renaissance, philosopher Alain Locke (1885-1954), who encouraged African-Americans to look to their country of origin for inspiration and images.

FRENCH INFLUENCED PAINTING. Hale Woodruff studied painting in Paris from 1927 to 1931 and was influenced by Picasso and other modernists painting at that time.
MEXICAN INFLUENCED.  Knowledgable of Diego Rivera's large socio-political murals, Hale Woodruff went to Mexico to learn from him. It is with Rivera, that he developed his art of telling a story in his paintings, and on a very large scale!


It is a momentous occasion that Hale Woodruff's six murals are on exhibit at the High Museum and that they will go on a nation-wide tour after leaving our Atlanta museum. It is the first time for these paintings to leave the walls of the Savery Library on the campus of Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama, where they have hung since their commission in 1939, the centennial of the mutiny on the Amistad.

IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC VIEWING  ART FROM DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES: To heal from the horrors that have occurred in the past, I believe we need to keep talking. Visual art provides us with a way to have a dialogue about past and present injustices. I am uncomfortable with any act of violence. This painting really disturbs me, yet I understand how important it is to all of us to see it publicly. For this image to have found a vastly wider and diverse audience outside its home in the library of a small college in Alabama is profound! As a white-skinned person, I have had the good fortune to be able to explore the importance of Hale Woodruff's exhibit, "Rising Up," with a black-skinned friend, Spencer Moon, who has also blogged about his response to these paintings.
JUSTICE FOR AFRICANS IN THE UNITED STATES IN 1839! This second painting in the Amistad trilogy shows the courtroom where the mutineers were put on trial.The Africans who had mutinied on the Amistad justly won their freedom since the importation of slaves into the United States had been prohibited since 1808. Just think the Civil War was fought between 1861-1865, some 20 years later!  
RETURNING TO AFRICA. The third image, which completes the Amistad trilogy, shows the Africans, having victoriously proven their freedom, leaving the United States  on a ship and returning to their native country. 
The second trilogy of Hale Woodruff's murals are just as powerful and beautiful as the Amistad paintings and expressed on a similar triumphant note. They depict the advancement of African Americans towards freedom--the underground railroad, going to college, and building the Savery Library, which is on the campus of Talladega College and where these murals have been housed since 1939.

FREEDOM THROUGH THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. This portion of the first painting in the second trilogy of Hale Woodruff's paintings on exhibit at the High Museum, evokes two emotions: hope and fear. Hope for those African Americans getting support to escape to free states (foreground) and fear for those being hunted down by dogs (background left).
HOW MUCH DOES AN EDUCATION COST?  In this image, Hale Woodruff depicts African Americans paying for college tuition by any means that they had, including agricultural products. Look at the size and complexity of this colorful mural ( I am providing scale)! All of the murals are the same proportion as this one). After the murals were taken down from the walls of Savery Library and before they were exhibited at the High Museum, they were restored to their original brightness from more than 70 years ago. Photo by Chiboogamoo
FROM PHYSICAL FREEDOM TO INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM! As educator, I delighted in this third painting in the second trilogy.  To think of students wanting to learn so much they construct the building that houses the very  knowledge they want to consume! I appreciate the thematic journey Hale Woodruff takes me through by the time I conclude my 6-painting journey with him.  As a viewer, I went from the African's mutiny on the Amistad, the courtroom where justice prevailed for them, to the escape to freedom for enslaved African Americans to their freedom to get a higher education--from physical freedom to intellectual freedom!
NATIVE FORMS. This image is at Clark Atlanta University, where Hale Woodruff was an instructor for 15 years. It is one of six 11-foot panels that he painted on the theme "Art of the Negro." This image was taken from Georgia's PBA site.

Once again, I proclaim HALLELUJAH for TRUTH! Hallelujah for the artists and story tellers in our communities. Hallelujah for Hale Woodruff and the work he created and gave to the world! Hallelujah for the High Museum who restored and exhibited this work!

Hale Woodruff's work has challenged me to understand my relationship to JUSTICE and RACE. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We have to transcend the barriers established by any kind of difference whether it be race, nationality, religion, culture, gender, age, etc.... We are ALL HUMAN BEINGS. We have the responsibility to help one another and to strive for FREEDOM for everyone.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Sincere thanks to Spencer Moon, author, educator and film-maker, who spent close to an hour skyping with me to discuss my responses to the High Museum's exhibit of Hale Woodruff's Talladega murals. He referred to a quote from a recent New York Times that said in the Southeastern part of the United States, repercussions of the Civil War are still being felt. He ought to know! We Southerners are still working out and struggling with issues of black and white. Coincidentally, I had just read Spencer's memoir, Reel Talk, in which he mentions Hale Woodruff and his murals on page 2! In fact, Spencer was born in Talladega, Alabama, but grew up in Detroit and then spent almost 30 years in San Francisco before returning to the South, where in now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. I appreciate his passion to discuss meaningful issues and how he helps me go deeper into my own understanding.

On a related topic of ART, STORY TELLING and RACE, read the blog I wrote about Daniel Boyd, an Australian Aboriginal artist, transforming stories told in art of the British colonists who invaded Australia: 



  1. I enjoyed the Hale Woodruff art. You always have something good! Thank you for your posts.
    - - - John Emerson

  2. Thanks for blogging about the art of Hale Woodruff. I had not known about him. Such vibrant triumphant murals beautifully and emotionally painted.

  3. Dear John and Cecelia! I appreciate your readership and support! I am so curious about you John and your creative journey since you post such beautiful and inspiring images on Facebook. And Cecelia, you are just wowing me with the artwork you are making this summer!

  4. Thanks for sharing! These murals are now at 80WSE Gallery at New York University~

  5. Thanks for letting us know where Hale Woodruff's murals are traveling and available to see Yun Qiu!