The “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” exhibition shown at the High Museum in Atlanta opens on Saturday and portrays an important story in history through cleverly crafted brush strokes and vivid colors on six murals measuring between 10 and 20 feet high.
Renowned artist Hale Woodruff was commissioned by Talladega College, the state’s oldest historically black college, in 1939 and 1942 to paint the six murals, which were created in two phases using oil on canvas. Stephanie Heydt, the Margaret & Terry Stent Curator of American Arts, said Woodruff had a “huge impact throughout the Southeast in the 1930s and 1940s.”
“He was engaged with and became more focused on issues current to him, paying attention to living conditions and conditions of the less fortunate, particularly African-Americans,” Heydt said. “He painted a lot of the things that don’t often find their way into artistic representation. He was a social realist painter.”
The narrative Woodruff told is distinctly painted on each mural. Heydt said Woodruff wanted to create a fresco style of painting the murals, but it was not possible at the time. Instead, she noted, Woodruff “captured the look of a fresco by using bright colors on a matte surface.”
The first cycle of murals Woodruff created include “The Mutiny on Amistad,” “The Trial of the Amistad Captives” and “The Repatriation of the Freed Captives.” The remaining three murals are more specific to Talladega College, depicting the Underground Railroad, the construction of the Savery Library at Talladega and the first day of school at Talladega following the Civil War.
Heydt said there is a broader message audiences will grasp upon viewing the exhibition.
“The murals are really about the journey from slavery to freedom overall,” she said. “Overcoming those kinds of challenges and battling oppression and racism are addressed. At the end of this series, the races were united and came together to build this library.”
The Savery Library is where the murals hung for almost 70 years before the conservation and restoration process started in 2011. During the year-long restorative process, the murals were cleaned and then framed for the tour.
“Taking the murals down and getting them restored and going on a national tour means so much not only to the history of the institution, but it means a great deal to the city of Talladega and the state of Alabama,” said Talladega College President Billy C. Hawkins. “We would like to think after the murals are presented on this national tour they will become a tourist attraction for the state.”
The exhibition tour begins in Atlanta, but other museums across the country will host the murals over the next three years, including exhibitions in New York, Connecticut, Louisiana and Michigan. Birmingham will be the last stop on the tour.
“One of the benefits from this tour is the education gained through these murals for thousands of students visiting the respective museums at their institutions,” Hawkins said.
“I think it’s just a great statement for anyone to come and see these glorious stories. They will really appeal to anyone who wanders through the exhibition,” Heydt added. “The murals shown at this exhibition, which were so important in their own day and continue to be important, are really the only time audiences can see the large and vibrant paintings at eye-level.”
Once the murals are shown at the Birmingham Museum of Art in 2015, they will be returned to the college. By that time, Hawkins hopes they will be hanging in a new museum on campus for people from all over to come and visit.
“It is my hope people will recognize this national treasure housed here in the state,” Hawkins said. “Everyone knows NASCAR at Talladega around the country, but now we have the Hale Woodruff murals that will give notoriety to Alabama.”
Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College
When: Opens Saturday and continues through Sept. 2
Where: High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. Northeast, Atlanta
Contact: 404-733-4400 or www.high.org