II

Narratives of African American Art and Identity

Hale Woodruff

Trusty on a Mule, 1939

Woodblock print on paper

8" x 10"


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Trusty on a Mule

Upon his return to the United States in 1931, after four years of study in France, Hale Woodruff joined the staff of Atlanta University. As the first extensively trained African American artist to teach at a black southern university, Woodruff encountered a myriad of obstacles such as inadequate studio space (he taught in two basement rooms of Spelman College) and a meager selection of art resources. Additionally, Woodruff felt ambivalent about the relevance of teaching Cubist technique and modernist theory-which he had studied intensely in Paris-to his eager yet artistically inexperienced students.

These unique circumstances, combined with the devastating impact of the Great Depression and the shift in American art from traditionalism to regionalism, lead Woodruff to drastically alter his former Cézanne-like palette into his own version of American regionalism. In an effort to translate this latest trend in American art into a format that he perceived as relevant to his pupils, Woodruff organized his students into a "Painter's Guild." In a 1942 interview for Time, Woodruff explained that he created the guild so that his students could gain a sense of identity and purpose through the expression of the "South as a field, as a territory: its peculiar rundown landscapes, its social and economic problems, and Negro People..."

In addition to teaching, Woodruff also encouraged his students by example. According to artist Romare Bearden and historical journalist Harry Henderson, Woodruff utilized one of his two allotted rooms at Spelman College as both an office and a studio, and "urged his students to come at any hour, letting them see that he was constantly working..." During his tenure at Atlanta University, Woodruff created an assortment of superbly designed woodcut prints, such as his 1939 work entitled "Trusty on a Mule." The work is Woodruff's characterization of the trustworthy and dependable convict, popularly referred to as "trusty," who is often granted special privileges during his incarceration.   T. F.

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