SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Hale Woodruff had a profound influence on 20th century American art, although the African-American artist found greater acceptance in Paris and later in Mexico, where he studied with Diego Rivera. Woodruff's own murals at Talladega College in Alabama are among his best-known works. Now those murals are concluding a national tour in Kansas City where his family has roots. C.J. Janovy from member station KCUR has more of the Woodruff story.
C.J. JANOVY, BYLINE: Sean Hughes is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art surrounded by American history, giant paintings in vivid colors with nearly life-sized figures.
SEAN HUGHES: Wow.
JANOVY: On one wall, a deck full of slaves is about to mutiny on the Amistad. On another wall, an urgent scene in the woods, as slaves are about to cross the Ohio River to freedom.
HUGHES: Makes you think and wonder. And I'm always drawn to go look at him.
JANOVY: In the second mural, the trial of the Amistad mutineers, is a man in a green shirt in the crowd. It's a self-portrait of Hughes's great uncle, Hale Woodruff.
HUGHES: He always puts his image in his works.
JANOVY: This exhibition was organized by the High Museum in Atlanta and it's toured several cities. Sean Hughes has seen the murals in New York and Washington, D.C. He was a young man when his great uncle died, so he got to spend time with them.
HUGHES: He was a very sophisticated man. I mean, our family was very outgoing and gregarious. But he was very reserved, very quiet. And he was just - he had an awesome presence about him.
JANOVY: Growing up in Kansas City, Hughes knew about the famous muralist Thomas Hart Benton who lived and taught here and he learned about the European painters in high school. But he didn't learn about his great uncle's importance until he went to Fisk University in Nashville.
HUGHES: The first day, I walk into the library. And as I walk into the library, I look to my right and they had a huge exhibit of Uncle Hale. I was so excited about it I ran back to the dorm, called my mother collect and I said, Mom, Mom, they got an entire corner dedicated to Uncle Hale. And she said, yeah, and I want you to get off this phone, go over and read every book and learn not only about him but learn about Aaron Douglas and the many other great artists - African-American artists that are in the world.
JANOVY: Hale Woodruff was a pioneer, says David C. Driskell, a distinguished art professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park.
DAVID C. DRISKELL: First of all, being one of the major teachers mid-20th century at historically black colleges and university teaching art where there weren't that many people teaching in that discipline.
JANOVY: In 1942, when Woodruff was at Atlanta University, he founded what was known as the Exhibition for African-American Artists.
DRISKELL: Which was the only venue where people of color could exhibit on a national scale without the force of the segregation.
JANOVY: This was a place where black artists could compete and have their work judged by a mixed jury of blacks and whites. Major artists like Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and many others considered Woodruff a mentor. And Driskell says he painted their story as well.
DRISKELL: By bringing subjects of importance relating to the African-American experience to the American art canon, he was very much bent on helping to tell the history of African-Americans by painting murals.
JANOVY: Woodruff's wife Theresa was Sean Hughes's great aunt. So he organized another exhibition across town in the art gallery at the American Jazz Museum.
SONIE JOI THOMPSON-RUFFIN: This is a part of the family collection.
HUGHES: That's awesome.
JANOVY: He's going through a box of photographs and family heirlooms with curator Sonie Joi Thompson-Ruffin.
THOMPSON-RUFFIN: This is something that Hale did.
JANOVY: This exhibition includes Christmas cards Woodruff painted for his relatives, abstract paintings and some of his black and white prints. Curator Thompson-Ruffin says Woodruff deserves two concurrent exhibitions.
THOMPSON-RUFFIN: Now you can't get enough black. Now you can't get enough African-American art. We are now considered American artists. This is the man that paved the way.
JANOVY: By the time Hale Woodruff died in 1980, he was recognized by his peers in the art world, but he still had a warning for his great nephew, Sean Hughes.
HUGHES: I can remember as a young man sitting at his feet, he would draw something. My sister and I would be there drawing and he would tell us, yeah, you guys got talent but it's not going to do you any good. He said my paintings are not going to make any matter. The only thing it's going to do, it'll be worth something to you guys. And he drilled that in my mom's head. He said, yeah, they really talented artists in their own right. But send them to law school.
JANOVY: Hale Woodruff was wrong about one thing. His paintings did matter. For NPR News, I'm C.J. Janovy in Kansas City.