Artist Shirley Woodson has seen Detroit through it all. In 1936, her family moved to the city’s north side when Woodson was just three months old. She earned art degrees at Wayne State University in Midtown and, over her six-decades-long career as a professional artist and arts educator in the city, steadily championed Detroit’s thriving Black arts scene, her colleagues say.
Now, at 85, Woodson has put on a major solo exhibition of her works at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). On view through June 12, “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections” showcases 11 of the artist’s colorful canvases rich in Afrocentric symbolism, according to a museum statement.
“Shirley’s art exemplifies her quiet determination to creatively express what she has learned about herself and the world she inhabits during the course of her life and career,” said Valerie Mercer, exhibition curator and department head of the DIA’s Center for African American Art, in the statement. “Through her skillful drawing combined with her exuberant palette, she lets us know that it’s always a balancing act to assert the complexities of her existence as a Black female artist, a wife, a mother, a mentor, a friend, and a human being.”
As a part-time gallery owner, art historian and educator, Woodson made a point throughout her career to nurture the careers of young Black artists. Several artists from Detroit, including nationally recognized fiber artist Sonya Clark, credit Woodson as a mentor, as Maureen Feighan reported for the Detroit News in October.
Even as an octogenarian, Woodson’s career isn’t slowing down: in 2021, she was named a Kresge Eminent Artist, a prestigious Detroit-based distinction that comes with a no-strings-attached prize of $50,000.
Woodson traces her artistic career back to her childhood. As a high schooler, she participated in weekend art classes for students at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The seed was planted: “I knew that I wanted to be an artist,” from that moment forward, Woodson recalls in an interview with Smithsonian.
Woodson graduated from Wayne State University in 1958 and went on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts there in 1965. In between, she traveled to Paris, Rome and Stockholm to study well-known master painters and learned alongside sculptor Richard Hunt at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, per the statement. Hunt became a lifelong friend, Woodson says. (In Chicago, Hunt recently unveiled one of his latest creations: a reaching, abstract monument to journalist and activist Ida B. Wells.)
Woodson debuted her mature painting style at a DIA show of Michigan artists in 1960, displaying the work Heavy Foliage, as Claretta Bellamy reported for NBC News in January. That same year, she began to teach art classes in the Detroit Public Schools system—and would continue to do so for more than three decades. She would go on to instruct college students at the nearby Highland Park Community College and Wayne State, becoming a well-known font of art historical knowledge in her community.
Despite an accomplished career, Woodson says she’s faced many racial barriers as a Black artist. After graduating from Wayne State, Woodson went to a gallery with hopes of displaying her work, per NBC News. The gallerist suggested she to stick to watercolor paintings, which Woodson says she felt was a lesser craft when compared with oil painting.
“Basically, you know, I guess he didn’t want to say, ‘We’re not interested in the work of, you know, Black artists,’ and so he simply put me off that way,” Woodson told NBC News.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time she heard that from people in the art world.
“I remember I called one major New York dealer just to ask a couple of questions,” Woodson added, “and they said, ‘Oh, we’re not interested in any African American art after 1950.
Art created by African American artists of the 20th century provided inspiration for many of Woodson’s paintings, collages and other works, she says. “Whether Jacob Lawrence paints it, or Bob Thompson paints it, or Archibald Motley paints it; whether Augusta Savage sculpts it—it is within our experience,” Woodson tells Nichole Christian in a monograph on the artist’s work, A Palette for the People. “We have an iconography of kings and queens” to draw from, Woodson adds.
“Shield of the Nile Reflections,” Woodson’s first solo exhibition at the DIA, features her most monumental series to date. She began painting works inspired by the African diaspora and the Nile River in Egypt in the 1970s.
Working in the tradition of bathers in the Western canon, Woodson envisioned Black bathers submerged in a dream-like Nile River. Water as a metaphor—with all its cultural associations of rebirth, cleansing and life, as well as its links to the Atlantic Ocean and the Middle Passage of the trade in enslaved people—appealed to her, Woodson says.
“When you’re submerged in water, if you’re swimming or even if you’re wading, you know that you are in touch with another element. That is huge, that is beyond the normal,” she says.
Through large canvases filled with explosive color and dream-like scenes—such as a floating shell, or a woman facing a mirror that reflects a faceless figure—Woodson hoped to capture that sense of the sublime.
“The goal was … to make the viewer at home, and then to lead the viewer into another space, visual and psychological,” the artist adds.
Today, Woodson continues to paint, and shares a studio with her son, artist Senghor Reid, per the Detroit News. She encourages young artists to keep records of their own art and to dedicate themselves to their craft.
“Take it seriously. You alone maintain the value of your art,” she adds. “Eventually everyone else will catch up with you.”