“All the threads of my life have been about art and its ability to connect and create ways of showing the beauty, the history, and the necessity of all art but particularly Black art.” So wrote the legendary Shirley Woodson, in her 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist statement. And there is no questioning her multigenerational, multicultural, and multiracial impact on Detroit’s artist community and beyond.
The 85-year-old Detroiter has worn many hats during her 60-plus-year career — painter, educator, gallerist, curator, advocate, and mentor among them. She says she traces her passion for the arts back to the earliest days taking special art courses in elementary school and at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She would continue pursuing this craft through high school, during which she received a gold medal from Scholastic for a street scene she painted of downtown Detroit; earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wayne State University; and studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I did collage, I did drawings, I did paintings in oil and then acrylic, and then wash,” Woodson says of her developing art style. “Especially after I got out of college, I wanted to really extend materials and explore. And I think that led to the brightening of my color palette.”
Indeed, bright colors, rich textures, and abstract human figures have all become part of Woodson’s signature art style, evident in works like her 1970 oil painting “Aretha the Queen,” her 2002 acrylic painting “Bathers in Yellow Landscape,” and her 2012 collage “Evening Glow.” Woodson was establishing herself as an artist during the height of the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements, working alongside fellow local art legends Allie McGhee and Charles McGee as part of a group called Arts Extended. She went on to co-found the Michigan chapter of the National Conference of Artists, the country’s oldest organization focused on nurturing and developing Black visual artists. Today, her artwork can be found in more than 20 permanent collections across the country, including at the DIA and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
“I’ve been able to keep the connections going because people are involved in all of it,” Woodson says of her longevity. “You find yourself meeting other artists, exchanging ideas, and you realize it’s not [one] thing — it’s all the things. It is all in our culture. … I feel at this point in my career, I’ve [done] some more of those things that I’ve always wanted to do.”
As an educator, Woodson spent more than five decades teaching art in Detroit and Highland Park. Her educational impact was clear, in part, last fall during her exhibit, Shirley Woodson: Why Do I Delight, at the Detroit Artists Market, which featured Woodson’s pieces alongside artwork paying tribute to her by her proteges Elizabeth Youngblood, Dwight Smith, Kimberly Harden, Peter Crow, Beverly Watson, and Najma Ma’at. “That was wonderful,” Woodson says. “These were former students of mine, and they are now my colleagues. So, that was very gratifying.”
Woodson says she still learns every day and creates all the time. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to maintain all of my interests,” she says. “I did not do it alone. I had a very supporting family, supporting friends and colleagues.” And she’s still receiving accolades: Last fall, the city of Detroit announced she was an inaugural recipient of the Detroit ACE Honors, which recognizes folks who have contributed 25 years or more to the city’s arts and culture. She has some exhibitions in the works for 2022 — one of them is now on display at the DIA through June: Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections, which features pieces referencing the belief that the Nile River holds healing benefits for people of African descent. She also hopes to work on publishing her poems and take some much-deserved time off.
Perhaps 2022 will be the year Woodson meets someone who can create the sounds for the two rap songs she’s written over the past couple of years — which she was inspired to do after listening to some Snoop Dogg and British rapper Tinie Tempah.
“I can’t quite catch the beat,” Woodson says. “I try to keep the words, and I figure one day I’ll meet somebody; they’ll put all the notes that go with it.”