Hale Aspacio Woodruff was born in 1900 in the southern Illinois town of Cairo. After the death of his father, Woodruff and his mother moved to East Nashville, Tennessee. He was always interested in art, but segregation prevented him from receiving art education classes at that time, although he did do cartoons for his high school newspaper.
Woodruff later went to study art at the Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana. He served as a political cartoonist for an African American newspaper, called The Indianapolis Ledger. Woodruff also studied for a short time at the Harvard's Fogg Museum School. After a brief stay in Chicago, where he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, Woodruff returned to Indianapolis in 1923, where he developed one of the country’s most successful black branches of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
It was in 1926 that Woodruff received an award from the prestigious Harmon Foundation which allowed him to study abroad. He went to Paris in 1927 and studied at L’ Académie Scandinave, and at L’ Académie Moderne with the great painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. During that time Woodruff developed a distinctive American regionalist style albeit inspired by Cubism. In Paris, Woodruff also painted landscapes and black genre, although he matured into an abstractionist emphasizing African symbolism. Woodruff's prints are clean and beautifuly carved images. The scenes aren't always so easy to take; showing a broken down existence, and the brutal price African-Americansoften paid to exist in a society that didn't want them.
In 1931, Woodruff decided to return to the States. He took a teaching position and taught for at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) for fifteen years, where he was one of Georgia’s first college professors of studio art. Due to his hard work and enthusiasm, the school became a mecca for young African-American artists. Woodruff also conducted art classes on the Spelman College campus for Atlanta University's Laboratory High School and for Spelman and Morehouse College students.
Woodruff brought art to Atlanta University from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection, and works by fifty-four contemporary black artists sponsored by the Harmon Foundation. He started a national competition series of art exhibitions for African-American artists, called the Atlanta University Art Annuals, from 1942-70. The university's amazing collection of African-American art is entirely due to Woodruff's efforts to bring it to the public.
He once said, "The one thing I think that must be guarded against is that, in our efforts to create a black image and to assert our quality, our character, our blackness, our beauty, and all that, the art form must remain one of high level."
In the late 1930s, he painted black history murals for Atlanta's Talledega College Slavery Library, reflecting the great mural painters’ tradition of Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera - the latter with whom Woodruff briefly studied in Mexico in 1936. While Woodruff may be best known for his murals, drawing parallels between Mexican art and African art, his prints about black lynchings and poverty are his most striking and poignant.
On a personal note, Woodruff married Kansas teacher Theresa Ada Barker in 1934. They had one son, Roy, in 1935.
Woodruff moved to New York to teach art at New York University in 1946; retiring in 1968. In the mid 60s, he and Romare Bearden established Spiral, a weekly discussion group for African American artists. The group was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Woodruff died in New York in 1980. His legacy for the African-American art movement in Georgia and New York is critical to the understanding and accessibility of their work to mainstream venues across this country. Woodruff tirelessly encouraged countless young artists to pursue their talents and dreams and for this we must pay homage to his work as a lightning rod of enlightenment for the masses.
Recognition and Awards:
Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, 1943
Harmon Foundation fellowship, 1926
First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal – Chair, US visual arts committee
New Jersey Society of Artists
New York State Council on the Arts
Society of Mural Painters
Atlanta University and Talledega College, Atlanta, GA
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Howard University and Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
New York University and New York Public Library, NY
Newark Museum, NJ
1951 - The Art of the Negro, Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries. Atlanta, GA
1949 - The Negro in California History, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, CA
1939 - The Amistad Mutiny,Talladega College, Atlanta, GA