Detroit painter Shirley Woodson named Kresge Eminent Artist

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Shirley Woodson, a renowned Detroit painter and arts educator who spent decades guiding and mentoring other young artists, has been named the 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist.

Woodson, 84, becomes the 13th Metro Detroit artist to win the prestigious annual award and will receive a $50,000 cash prize. She'll also be honored in a short film that will premiere during a virtual event in April.

“This is a totally incredible experience,’’ said Woodson, according to a press release. “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.’’   

Shirley Woodson, a renowned painter, stands in her Detroit studio. She is the 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist.

Though known for her oils, pastels and acrylics, Woodson's work has also included drawing, watercolor, collage, stencils and mixed media pieces, according to Kresge. Her vibrant paintings and collages are often "layered with references to a love of folklore, cultural iconography and elements of nature," according to a press release.

Outside of her own work, Woodson, who still has a studio in Northwest Detroit, also spent more than 26 years teaching art in Highland Park schools and at the now defunct Highland Park Community College. She also was a fine arts supervisor for more than 10 years at Detroit Public Schools and an adjunct art instructor at Wayne State University.

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, said Woodson has taught, mentored and expanded opportunities for "successive generations." And she leads by example, he said.

"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," said Rapson in a press release. "Her impact through all these channels underscores with enormous power the role that arts can, and do, play in building and preserving vibrant communities.”

An oil painting by Shirley Woodson called "On the Beach."

Previous Kresge Eminent Artists include visual artists Charles McGee, Ruth Adler Schnee and Marie Woo; musicians Marcus Belgrave, Patricia Terry-Ross and Wendell Harrison; writers Bill Harris, Naomi Long Madgett and Dr. Gloria House; photographers Bill Rauhauser and Leni Sinclair; and composer-impresario David DiChiera.

Woodson was born in Tennessee but moved to Detroit with her parents as a young baby. She was drawn to art even as a child.

“My first recollection that art was of any interest to me was really in kindergarten," said Woodson.

She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1958 and a Master of Fine Arts in 1965 from Wayne State University. She also pursued graduate studies in painting and art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Woodson's work is included in more than 23 permanent collections in museum across the country, including in Detroit, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington, D.C. 

And 2021 is already shaping up to be a big year for Woodson. She'll also have a solo show of her work at the Detroit Artists Market later this year.

 “You work and work and work, and then suddenly so much happens at once,’’ said Woodson.