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Out of the Shadows: Spelman Honors Artists

By Mary Logan Barmeyer

 In 2003, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, the director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, was cleaning up the art department’s storage areas and came across some historic treasures. She began wiping dust off of works of art by the founders of the art department of the Atlanta University system, Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) and Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890-1960).

The two artists joined the Atlanta University system in the 1930s and propelled a highly influential African-American art movement in the city. Now, in a current exhibit, their works are together for the first time to commemorate both the 75th anniversary of the art department that the artists co-founded and also the 10th anniversary of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

The exhibit, “Hale Woodruff, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet and the Academy,” will run until May 12. The museum is located in the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, a stunning building on Spelman’s campus built in honor of actor Bill Cosby’s wife and dedicated in 1996.

Brownlee said that since the discoveries, she and co-curator Amalia K. Amaki, curator of the Paul R. Jones Collection and professor at the University of Delaware, have been researching and traveling, digging up as much of the artists’ work as they could find. The search has involved at least 29 institutions and 10 private collectors. The school managed to uncover 20 pieces by Woodruff, many of them unknowingly in the permanent collection; a watercolor painting by Prophet also had gone unnoticed for years.

Hale Woodruff: artist and activist

Woodruff was invited to the Atlanta University Center in 1931 to start an art department for its five historically black colleges and universities. He was a painter who studied in Paris, and his works won numerous awards, including a travel grant to study with Mexican artist Diego Rivera and a Rosenwald Fellowship, which allowed him a year to live and work in New York. Much of his work reflects French modernism with African influence. He is widely regarded as a visionary artist who was engaged in social issues and who encouraged his students to do the same.

“It must have been quite a vision to develop an art department in the segregated South in the 1930s, and to shape and form the lives of younger African-American artists,” said Brownlee.

Brownlee and others discovered many of Woodruff’s works, mostly paintings, in disrepair – improperly stored or never even removed from the boxes donors sent them in. One painting was found in a Delta Airlines garment bag.

Eventually, the grime was removed from each piece as it was carefully restored. Two photographs of a newly discovered Woodruff painting of a matador — one before restoration and one after — hang on the dry erase board in Brownlee’s office. The first looks dark and sludgy, with the matador’s legs and sword cut off at the bottom. The second shows a painting that is much brighter and, in fact, much larger than the first; the canvas was inches larger than it looked in storage. A description on the back also gave more information about a society of mural painters Woodruff belonged to in New York in the 1940s — something that was news to the curators.

Intrigued by these surprises, Brownlee and Amaki furiously continued their research, tracing works to private collections, art galleries and museums. Ultimately, they came up with more than 50 works by Woodruff for this spring’s exhibition.

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet: artist

Prophet’s works were harder to come by. Although she was reported to have created a wealth of works in Paris in the 1920s and early 1930s – paintings, drawings and sculptures (her most celebrated works) – most of her art has been lost or destroyed over the years, conceivably by her own hand, as she suffered with emotional challenges.

The museum has acquired all 12 of Prophet’s work known to exist for this exhibit.

Prophet was the first African-American woman to graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design and went on to study in Paris. During the 1920s and early 1930s, she was regarded as one of the most talented American sculptors by both American and European critics. Nevertheless, her works, mostly busts of ebony and marble, have never been the subject of an exhibition outside of her home state of Rhode Island, presumably because so few exist.

Prophet came to the Atlanta University Center in 1934 and introduced sculpture to the curriculum. The one piece of Prophet’s work that was dug out of storage was a watercolor — not one of her best works, but an example nonetheless — that hadn’t been seen for years. Brownlee and Amaki discovered 10 other works from various owners through zealous research, and purchased one other from a gallery.

The ebony bust is thought to be one of her well-known pieces from her earlier days, but the eyebrows, nose and ears were meticulously chiseled off. The deliberate chisel strokes indicate that it may have been the artist herself who destroyed her own work.

Brownlee excitedly points out her window to a small building on Spelman’s tree-filled lawn that housed Prophet’s studio in the 1930s. According to Brownlee, Prophet loved her Atlanta atelier and her role as an art educator, but her art career began to spiral downward as she suffered with personal issues.

“She devoted all of her meager resources to her work,” said Brownlee, with infectious enthusiasm. “But she suffered a great deal, and I think she literally died of her heart.”

Nonetheless, Prophet’s influence on Atlanta’s African-American art community was great. “People often talk about Hale Woodruff,” said Brownlee. “But we can’t forget about [Prophet’s] work; you can’t have a full art department without 3-D.”

Hale Woodruff, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet and the Academy
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art at the Atlanta University Center on the Spelman College campus in the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, 350 Spelman Lane. Jan. 18-May 12. Suggested donation $3/Parking $3. Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Saturday noon-4 p.m.