Shirley Woodson (b. 1936) is a Black American painter known for her sumptuous, vibrant and expressive canvases in both oil and acrylic. Born in Pulaski, Tennessee, she moved with her family when only three months old to Detroit and lived the rest of her life in the area, barring graduate study in Chicago and a number of fellowships further abroad in Europe. For most of her life, she worked a day job as an educator in colleges and schools in both Detroit and its internal enclave of Highland Park.
Woodson’s early enthusiasm for art received a substantial boost from the Detroit Institute of Art, where she took art classes from the seventh grade. For the rest of her career, she would use the DIA as a touchstone, one of the most prominent of the many artists who’ve been involved with the institution as educators, practitioners, or enthusiasts (its influence on me has been incalculable, and it’s good to see so many different and prominent artists have had similar experiences, despite some of its issues). While she experimented on occasion with collage, figurative painting remained her first love and what she’s probably best known for today.
I first encountered Woodson’s work in a retrospective at the Detroit Artists’ Market several months back (just a few blocks away down Woodward Avenue from the DIA) and was instantly taken with it. Sticking with figurative imagery while exploiting the vocabulary and freedom of abstract art has always struck me as a great way to square the many circles of the last century’s motion (I wish I had the talent or confidence to manage this myself) and Woodson’s bold use of color not just as a self-evident descriptor but also structural support in its own right was hugely inspiring on a technical level, even before you get to the meaning and import of her work.
The DIA has Woodson’s Shield of the Nile series on display until the middle of June; it’s a set of mostly (all? I can’t remember now) acrylic paintings that are basically riffs on the mythic importance of the Nile River as a referent of Black consciousness and the African diaspora. I saw it last month and it was worth the wait: massive, contained storms of swirling colors and slashing lines. I was looking forward to going again today, not least as Woodson herself is giving a talk on her work at the Detroit Film Theater (attached to the DIA; I’ve never been–it’s tonight at 6 pm if you’re in the area!) but (marginal) financial issues and worries about the weather (probably gonna be a lot of ice today) convinced me to postpone my next visit. That said, if you have the chance, check out Shield of the Nile as well as her work entire; great stuff and inspiring on many different levels.
The header is Woodson’s Flight in Mirror (acrylic on canvas, 1996). Stay safe and well today.