Hale Woodruff: The Harlem Renaissance in Atlanta

Article excerpt

It looked like a giant. With its tall white walls, rounded corner structures, and what looked like hundreds of little white-framed windows, it emitted the sense of a clean and sterile Bauhaus-inspired palace. He had never seen such a place. After riding the fast-paced streetcar through the bustling roads that made up downtown Atlanta, Hale Aspacio Woodruff finally made his way to the entrance of the High Museum of Art. As he ventured up to the doors, he noticed an African American janitor diligently sweeping the sidewalk. The man intently watched Woodruff as he climbed up the gravity-defying walkway and through the large entrance doors of the High Museum. "Excuse me," Woodruff said to the museum's receptionist, "I want to see the Director." The woman's eyes bore into Woodruff as she processed his request. Her expression reflected a looming essence of surprise that was slightly overshadowed by a sense of distaste and suspicion. Despite her shock, Woodruff was led back through the hall to the office of the High's leading Director. The two men chatted on about art and culture for a good while, eventually closing their conversation on the air of equals. As Woodruff passed through the lobby on his way to the exit, somebody stopped him. The individual who halted him was the in fact the janitor whom Woodruff had seen suspiciously eying him from outside of the museum. The janitor said quickly, "Come here, I want to tell you something." Woodruff was confused but also intrigued by the janitor's question. He replied, "What's that?" The janitor proceeded, "You know, I've been at this place for 1 don't know how many years, but you're the first black man besides me that's ever walked through that front door." Woodruff paused as he registered what the man had said, and with a slight smirk on his face he answered, "Well, I won't be the last." (1)

The didactic ability of art to address the roles of race and class within a specific setting and moment in time is phenomenal. More impressive than that are the individuals who actually produce those works. What drove these artists to create art? What drove their art? What drove them? All of these questions and more are quizzically and intricately woven in and around the life and art of Hale Woodruff. The treacherous characteristics that enveloped his life, which included his race, the time period in which he lived, and his desired profession, all attributed to not only his success, but also his impact on the African American community as well as the art world as a whole. Through his struggles of self-identification, the battle between calling oneself artist or teacher, Woodruff exhibited enormous talent with any venture he attempted to tackle. How exactly Woodruff developed these talents, to which he utilized in his teaching and painting, is a key factor in understanding how he handled and anticipated being characterized as something other than what he desired or appeared to actually be. By understanding this connection, a better awareness of the political elements within the art world can be achieved, as well as a deeper recognition of the multitude of differing opinions involving these debates as they related to the African American community.

Art was not always the main driving force in Hale Woodruff's life, but it did strike an interest in the Indianapolis native starting at a young age. After Woodruff's father past away, he and his mother moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he remained for the duration of his adolescence. As a child, he would watch his mother doodle images on scrap pieces of paper, a past time that he adopted as well. (2) Since he was an only child, finding entertainment was difficult, so he would sometimes copy newspaper cartoons done by the artist Gustave Dore, and draw them into the family Bible. (3) While the idea of becoming a professional artist was not yet on the horizon, he did enjoyed art as a hobby. This interest in art continued throughout his youth. …