Our summer exhibition Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College, comes to the Museum after visiting museums across the country. From New York to Washington to Chicago, the murals have inspired audiences at some of the nation’s top museums. The Birmingham Museum of Art was lucky to welcome these national treasures back to their home state after their tour. The BMA is also lucky to welcome the curator of the exhibition, the High Museum of Art’s Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art Stephanie Heydt, Ph.D., for a lecture on Wednesday, August 26 at 6pm. To learn more about Dr. Heydt and the free lecture, read more in our interview below.
Birmingham Museum of Art: How did this exhibition idea come about?
Stephanie Heydt: Hale Woodruff spent fifteen years working and teaching in Atlanta, from 1931 to 1946, so he is an artist that has always been of interest to the High Museum. During even the darkest years of the Depression, Woodruff managed to establish the first formal studio arts program for African Americans in the South, based from his classrooms on the Spelman College campus and at Clark Atlanta University. Even while under the oppression of segregation, Woodruff drew attention to and broke through the color barrier in Atlanta gaining access to the High Museum for his students and establishing the first annual juried art exhibition in the Southeast. Woodruff’s legacy is very important here.
The project came about because the Talladega murals are not only among Woodruff’s greatest works, but they had a national impact when they were first unveiled in 1939. Yet, they have never been the subject of an intensive study, nor have they been seen outside Talladega, Alabama. Because they are murals painted on canvas, we knew they could be safely deinstalled and travelled. We also knew that we could find funding to restore them.
The idea of restoring, exhibiting and touring the murals began with the vision of the High’s Chief Operating Officer Philip Verre and was warmly embraced and enabled by the leadership at Talladega College — resulting in a wonderful collaboration that led to this exhibition project. I joined the High as the Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art just as the project was beginning to take shape. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to lead the curatorial vision through the exciting moments of conservation, research, and discovery. This has been among the most rewarding curatorial experiences of my career.
BMA: Collecting these renowned works and putting them in their historical context must have been a huge undertaking. What was the most rewarding part of the process? What was the most difficult?
SH: As I learned more about the murals in their context – in the setting for which Woodruff painted them – I came to see them as expressing universal virtues in a way that could resonate with a variety of audiences, with the college students who would pass by them every day, but also with national audiences. Woodruff is so effective in these murals at instilling a sense of urgency but also uplift — layering in humor and whimsy, as well as underscoring the very serious nature of the subject matter. Just the process of studying them was a joy.
All along the way we made wonderful little discoveries — and some larger ones, too. In fact, I am still finding details and hidden meanings that surprise and inform me. Dr. Graham Boettcher and Ms. Kelli Morgan have both pointed out fascinating observations that still now add to our understanding of these fantastic works! But also I would add that I am never happier than I am with a group of people who are seeing the murals for the first time. You can just feel the excitement! It just is not possible to stand in a room with these works and not get pulled in. I am so grateful to have been a part of what has made that possible.
As for what has been the most difficult, I would have to say it is always a nail biting experience planning for the safe travel and installation of any works of art during the course of a long tour. We also had to design a special mode of transport for the two twenty-foot murals since we could not find trucks long enough to accommodate them in their crates! Luckily we had a great team of conservators and art handlers who have planned well for the process. We are also very careful to assess the condition of the works before and after every round of travel. The murals are in remarkable shape, but we also spend time and effort making sure that they remain so. This is our top priority, above all.
BMA: Since you curated the Rising Up exhibition at the High Museum, the works have traveled many places, including Washington, New York, Chicago, and more. Does each stop present the collection differently, or are the exhibitions consistent throughout?
SH: I love the fact that the exhibition has its own unique presentation in each venue. I have been privileged to work with curators from all over the country and am delighted that each site has made choices in their presentation that best reflect their institution. On a practical note, the shape and space of each museum’s galleries often determines the installation flow. It has been fun for me to see how shifting around the objects slightly alters the way in which the story unfolds. I am especially impressed with the installation at Birmingham. I believe it is the very first that has been able to accommodate all six murals in the same room – and they are laid out in the precise sequence as they hang in Savery Library at Talladega College. This installation really allows visitors to see the intentional relationships between the two sets of murals and experience uninterrupted the evolution of the narrative.
BMA: Along those lines, do you think that this stop in Alabama, the home state of the famous murals painted for Talladega College, has a special significance due to its location?
SH: Absolutely! As much as I would argue for Woodruff’s intentions for the murals to stand as a national statement on race relations, past and present, these murals very much tell a local story, as well. It was always my hope that they would travel to the BMA for this reason. Woodruff lived in Atlanta and traveled through Alabama to Talladega on a near weekly basis for a few years as he was teaching studio art as a visiting professor at the college. He came to know this region very well and I see much of his personal observations reflected in details throughout the murals —particularly in the Founding Cycle where we see the regional landscape. The colors, the atmosphere all feel very familiar. But moreover, the commission from Talladega College was truly an expression of its time and place. Talladega College leadership at that moment was very committed to pushing back against the injustices of segregation and these murals respond to specific events that were unfolding in their own Alabama community as much as they were chronicling history.
BMA: What can viewers gain by visiting the Rising Up exhibition?
SH: Its so rare to have the experience of directly confronting wall murals twenty feet in length at eye level. The murals still have a very powerful effect on me — if you are able to see them in Birmingham, I urge you to do so before the show closes! The murals will soon go into storage until they are able to be reinstalled at Talladega — it may be years before you have an opportunity to view them again. But beyond the experience of seeing them, I also think the exhibition as a whole adds deeper context to the experience. The selection of paintings on view reveals something of the artist’s own evolution as a painter, and as an African American who had terrific influence and a powerful, uplifting voice during one of our country’s most tumultuous moments.