In Los Angeles in the 1960’s many black artists including Charles White, Ruth Waddy and Samella Lewis fought for representation in local museums including LACMA. Little did I know that at least one artist had been given a solo show there decades prior.
Beulah Ecton Woodard was an artist/sculptor born in Ohio in 1895 who grew up in Los Angeles. After studying at Los Angeles Art School, Otis and USC she also learned from sculptors including Peter David Edstrom, who later became one of the founders of LACMA. Woodard’s sculptural work, consisting of African busts made from bronze, wood and terra-cotta, slowly caught the attention of patrons and after a series of minor solo exhibitions where her audience and reputation grew, her work was featured in an 8 week exhibition at LACMA. She was the first black artist to show at the museum in 1935. Two years later Woodard organized the Los Angeles Negro Art association and in the early 1950’s she was the Director of the co-operative gallery Eleven Associated which included William Pajoud. The co-op was the organizational precursor for groups like Art West Association.
Woodard’s distinctive sculptural work consisting of African busts and masks were beautiful renditions of West African imagery that was created to counter the negative, socially stigmatizing imagery of Africa that was prolific in media and racist propaganda. With sculptural portraits of women in braided coifs and colorful adornments, her goal was “to promote a better understanding of the African with his rich historical background.”
Woodard’s sculptures were in high demand among collectors who commissioned her work, but then the tide turned for the artist whose style fell out of favor among curatorial and editorial circles when her artistic classification was relegated from fine artist to a “provincial hobbyist”. While much of this had to do with the lingering debilitating economic conditions created by the Great Depression, the art world appeared eager to recalibrate their focus on new artistic styles dominated by men.
“Abstract Expressionism had replaced the social realism of the depression and the sundry artists, including women and African-Americans, whose capabilities had been celebrated in the 1930’s fell out of official favor and lost their tenuous footing in the art world.” (Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists by Lisa E. Farrington).
“The window of opportunity for women artists briefly opened in the 1930’s was quickly snapped shut in the 40’s with the proliferation of AB/Ex and its macho mystique to which women artist were automatically excluded access.”
Despite these attempts to diminish her work, it remained highly collectible and the Woodard continued to create and exhibit her work until her untimely death in 1955. Her commitment to organizing artists in the 1930s with the Los Angles Negro Art Association and later with Eleven Associated is a testament to the importance of collaboration as the community of black artists in Los Angeles continued to grow.
Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, by Amy Helene Kirschke
Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists, by Lisa E. Farrington