“This is a totally incredible experience,” said painter and educator Shirley Woodson about her selection as the 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist. “To get the call, to hear Kresge … the recognition is so overwhelming. My mind just went blank. I couldn’t say anything for a long time.”

Woodson is the 13th metro Detroit artist to receive the lifetime achievement award, which includes a $50,000 no strings attached prize. The annual honor celebrates an individual’s record of exceptional work, professional achievement in the arts, significant impact on their chosen art form, and generous contributions to the growth and vibrancy of Detroit’s cultural environment. 

As a painter whose career spans over six decades, Woodson’s signature style blends bold colors with precise, yet wildly expressive techniques that can be seen whether she is using a brush or experimenting with stencils and spray paint. Her paintings and collages are layered with references to folklore, cultural iconography, and elements of nature. Human figures in these pieces often appear faceless — a purposeful choice by Woodson to draw viewers close. Her paintings number in the hundreds, and her Northwest Detroit studio overflows with works in progress.

Her paintings have been in many solo and group shows and are included in more than 23 permanent collections across the United States, including the Detroit Institute of Arts and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan; Mott-Warsh Collection of Contemporary Art in Flint, Michigan; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, New York; Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, Boston, Massachusetts; Hampton University Museum of Art, Hampton, Virginia; and the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.

With Woodson’s longevity has come an array of signature local and national awards and grants. Among them are a MacDowell fellowship in New Hampshire, the Alain Locke Award from the Detroit Institute of Arts, a Michigan Council for the Arts grant, the HistoryMakers Award, the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists, an Arts Achievement Award from Wayne State University, and the Dr. Charles H. Wright Award for Excellence for Arts in Education.

Beyond an ongoing studio practice, Woodson’s name is synonymous with arts education and mentoring generations of young African American artists including the late Gilda Snowden, who became an acclaimed painter and arts educator in her own right. Snowden’s legacy is celebrated annually through the Kresge-funded Gilda Awards for risk-taking, emerging artists.

In a 1996 interview, Snowden highlighted Woodson’s mentorship: “As an educator, and a career artist, she has been a staunch supporter of African American artists. As a young artist, she gave me encouragement.”

Shirley Woodson sharing her work with parents, Claude and Celia Woodson, at Detroit's Arts Extended Gallery in the early 1960s. Photo by James D. Wilson, courtesy Shirley Woodson.
Shirley Woodson sharing her work with parents, Claude and Celia Woodson, at Detroit’s Arts Extended Gallery in the early 1960s. Photo by James D. Wilson, courtesy Shirley Woodson.

“For decades, Woodson’s instruction of art students and upcoming art professionals has anchored and shaped the arts and culture community of Detroit. For the art and design students who attend CCS — and for all of us — Woodson is an inspiring example of an artist-educator’s relentless dedication and lasting impact on the trajectory of an entire community,” said College for Creative Studies President Donald L. Tuski. “It is an honor to administer Kresge Arts in Detroit on behalf of The Kresge Foundation, and to celebrate Shirley Woodson as the 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist.”  

In 1974, Woodson co-founded the Michigan chapter of the National Conference of Artists (NCA). Founded in 1959, the conference is the nation’s oldest arts organization focused on nurturing, developing, and promoting opportunities for Black visual artists. With chapters across the country, the NCA also connects artists to educators, historians, critics, collectors, curators, and gallery owners within the network. Woodson, who retired from public education in 2008, sits on the NCA’s executive board and continues to lead the Michigan chapter as its president. 

“The different threads of my life have always been connected,” Woodson says. “It’s all been about art, the opportunity to express and reflect and connect with the community and the world around me. Art is vital.”

“Since its inception more than a decade ago, the Kresge Eminent Artist award has elevated artists for their contributions to both their art form and the cultural community of metropolitan Detroit,” said Rip Rapson, the president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. “Shirley Woodson has taught and mentored, cultivating and expanding creative opportunities for successive generations. She has organized artists and curated their exhibitions. And she is an artist who leads by engaged example. Her superlative technique is rooted in inviting the viewer to see the world in a different way, whether the work is abstract, figurative, or something of a blend. Her impact through all these channels underscores with enormous power the role that arts can, and do, play in building and preserving vibrant communities.”

Previous Kresge Eminent Artist awardees are visual artists Charles McGeeRuth Adler Schnee and Marie Woo; musicians Marcus BelgravePatricia Terry-Ross and Wendell Harrison; writers Bill HarrisNaomi Long Madgett and Dr. Gloria House; photographers Bill Rauhauser and Leni Sinclair; and composer-impresario David DiChiera.

Shirley Woodson working in her Detroit studio
Shirley Woodson working in her Detroit studio. Photo by Patrick Barber for The Kresge Foundation.

Dr. Gloria House, the 2019 Kresge Eminent Artist, was one of five artists and arts professionals charged with selecting the award’s 2021 recipient. “It was the longevity of her conscious contributions that made Shirley stand out,” explained House. “So many years, decades of this kind of unrelenting daily service to community, to being an institution-builder, and still being able to produce so prolifically, so beautifully. That’s special. To me, that’s what it means to be an artist. It’s wonderful to make great work, but are you rooted? Are you responding to the needs and to community around you — Shirley has done that.”

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