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2021 Michiganians of the Year

As artist and mentor, Shirley Woodson, 85, isn't done

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Even at 85 with an art career that has spanned six decades and a hand in mentoring some of Detroit's biggest names in art, longtime figurative painter Shirley Woodson is still learning as an artist. 

"I learn from it every day," Woodson said.

Indeed, age is just a number to Woodson, who spent decades as an art teacher and administrator in Detroit and Highland Park, mentoring other young artists while continuing to work at her own craft. And she isn't slowing down.

She was named the Kresge Eminent Artist earlier this year, a coveted cultural prize in Detroit, and just unveiled a new show of her work at the Detroit Artists Market, "Why Do I Delight," that includes some pieces by artists she's taught. And another show of Woodson's paintings is in the works at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Shirley Woodson, Michiganian
Artist Shirley Woodson was named the Kresge Eminent Artist earlier this year, a coveted cultural prize in Detroit, and just unveiled a new show of her work at the Detroit Artists Market.
Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

“Shirley Woodson has taught and mentored, cultivating and expanding creative opportunities for successive generations," said Rip Rapson, the president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation. "She has organized artists and curated their exhibitions. And she is an artist who leads by engaged example."

Woodson, who was born in Tennessee but moved to Detroit as a baby with her parents and still lives here, knew at 14 that she wanted to be an artist. Her parents exposed her to a variety of creative pursuits — piano, for example — but it was the fine arts to which she was drawn.

After graduating from Wayne State University, she found her way into teaching. She spent more than 40 years as both a teacher and administrator in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, Highland Park Schools and at the college level. She also co-founded the Michigan chapter of the National Conference of Artists, one of the nation's oldest arts organizations focused on nurturing, developing and promoting opportunities for Black visual artists.

Artist Shirley Woodson poses during an interview, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, at her art studio in Detroit.
Artist Shirley Woodson poses during an interview, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, at her art studio in Detroit. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

Sonya Clark, a nationally known fiber artist who is now an art professor at Amherst College, is one of the artists Woodson nudged along the way.

The two got to know each other while Clark was a graduate student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Woodson connected Clark to other artists, included her in group exhibits and invited her to give artist talks, even when she was "green."

"I simply cannot imagine how I would have navigated my graduate school years without all the wonderful people she introduced me to," Clark said. "So many of my lifelong friendships with artists and art folks started with my connection to Shirley Woodson."    

For Woodson, she said she didn't set out to be a mentor, but "I like to see what other artists do." She collects art to this day.

The artwork of Detroiter Shirley Woodson.
The artwork of Detroiter Shirley Woodson. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

Art, she said, is the key to so many other areas, such as history, travel and writing.

"What I enjoy about teaching is to see kids learn how to embrace an idea and to be able to express it," said Woodson. "That sounds simple but it really isn't." 

Her own paintings, meanwhile, are known for their bold colors and expressive nature.

"The color is an invitation to look further, to see deeper, to understand different relationships," said Woodson, who uses oils and acrylic paints on canvas and shares a studio with her son, Senghor Reid, also an artist. 

Imagining her career as it is today, in many ways, was about being open to the idea, Woodson said. But she acknowledges she couldn't have done it without her parents and husband, Edsel B. Reid, who died in 2000.

 "I knew something was out there," she said. "And it would manifest itself in many ways."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Shirley Woodson

Age: 85

Occupation: Artist, educator, mentor

Education: A bachelor of fine arts degree and master of fine art from Wayne State University; she also attended graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Family: Sons Khari and Senghor Reid; and a grandson, Dayton Reid.

Why honored: For tirelessly advocating and mentoring other artists, including the late Gilda Snowden, Sonya Clark and others.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of Shirley Woodson's late husband, Edsel B. Reid.

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