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85-year-old Detroit artist and former teacher sees childhood dream come true

▶ Watch Video: 85-year-old Detroit artist gets solo exhibition

Shirley Woodson taught art in high schools and colleges in the Detroit area for over 26 years. Now, the community is highlighting the 85-year-old’s decades of dedication to the Michigan art scene with her own exhibit.

The exhibit, titled the “Shield of the Nile Reflections,” is running at the Detroit Institute of Arts through June 12, 2022, and highlights the diasporic myth that the Nile River holds transformative and nurturing benefits for people of African descent.

“The Nile is a part of our history and certainly within the art realm. It’s sort of the basis of art history with all of the wonderful discoveries and things that were built over hundreds of years,” Woodson explained. “I want my art to inspire, to be inspirational, and to cause people to think.”  

Though this is not her first solo exhibit, it is her first at such an esteemed art institute. Woodson said she used to visit the DIA as a kid. “The Detroit Institute of Art was where I learned so much from and a complete resource for me growing up…it’s a very special place,” she said.

Woodson has long been an integral part of the Detroit art community. She was the co-founder and longtime president of the Michigan chapter of the National Conference of Artists, and she worked as an art teacher for nearly three decades — an experience she called “really wonderful.”

“Teaching young kids, then older students and then adults about art and cultural aspects of life,” Woodson said. “Sort of weaving it all into something that everyone could enjoy every day.”

She’s adamant about helping young people pursue careers in art, especially people of color.

“The larger art world out there is not representing artists of color, African American artists in the way that it should,” she said.

Sisters Rebecca Holland and Leslie Holland-Pryor grew up down the street from Woodson.

“Sometimes I would babysit for her, and they had art all over the house, and I remember seeing little jars of watercolor paste and brushes and it was just unbelievable,” big sister Holland-Pryor said.  

The pair also saw her work around their own home.

“My mom was an art connoisseur and she had a lot of Shirley’s work,” Holland-Pryor said. “She bought her work early in her career, so we grew up with it in the household.”

Her sister, Rebecca, recalled the stern way Woodson taught her students.

“She’s a tough lady, and she knows her stuff and she’s very direct,” she said. “When she speaks about her work, she wants you to know the back story, the journey, what it’s reflecting and what is going on in the piece.”  

The vibrant colors seen in the pieces in Woodson’s exhibit symbolize the strength and transformative power of the Nile.

“We know that, through many cultures over hundreds, thousands of years, how people associate with the river,” she said. “The spirituality that comes from the water gods, the deities and how they sort of create their world view or their religious views on the water.”

When asked if she sees herself slowing down as she approaches 90, Woodson did not hesitate with her reply.

“Well I did retire from teaching, you don’t retire from being an artist,” she said.

Michael George contributed reporting.



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