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Beulah Ecton Woodard - Maudelle
Beulah Ecton Woodard
(American, 1895–1955)
ca. 1937-38
Fired terracotta painted brown with white and green additions

Woodard's Maudelle is a masterpiece of realistic portraiture achieved through incisive modeling and detailed description of the sitter’s features, braided hair, and colorful earrings. Her dramatic beauty combined with the medium of terracotta (unglazed brownish-red earthenware) gives the bust a potent presence. A fundamental medium of artistic expression, clay, even after firing, reveals traces of the artist’s touch. This sensation of the presence of the artist combined with the slight tilt of Maudelle’s head lends a forceful immediacy to the portrait, which was modeled without the use of drawings or sculptural models.

Beulah Ecton Woodard was an African-American artist who specialized in sculpture in a variety of media, including terracotta, bronze, wood, and papier-mâché. Born in Ohio, she moved with her family to Vernon, California, which was near Los Angeles. Her fascination with African culture began at the age of twelve, when a native African visited her family. This interest continued throughout her life as she explored the portrayal of Africans and African-Americans, often from an ethnographic and anthropologic perspective.

She showed an interest in drawing early on, and in high school she studied architectural drawing in preparation for a career as an architect. In 1926 she began experimenting in clay, but her family dissuaded her from pursuing it further. She soon returned to sculpture, however, after her marriage to Brady Woodard in 1928. While racism led to the withdrawal of support for study in Europe, she continued to study art at the Los Angeles Art School, Otis Art Institute, and the University of Southern California.

The primary purpose of art was to educate, according to Woodard. She wanted to teach African-Americans to take pride in their African heritage, as she worked to establish an independent African American identity for black Americans. She thus avoided abstraction as she sought to realistically portray her subjects. This bust of Maudelle shows her straightforward and easily understandable approach to art.

Woodard was the first African-American artist to show at the Los Angeles County Museum with her solo exhibition in 1935. With her increasing fame, important commissions for portrait busts of notable local figures arrived. She organized the Los Angeles Negro Art Association in 1937 and lectured at a variety of educational institutions. Despite her busy schedule, she continued to promote other artists and remained involved in the community. Thanks to artists like Woodard and the cultural diversity of California, museums like the San Francisco Museum of Art, Lowie Museum at the University of California, Berkeley, and Los Angeles County Museum began exhibiting art from African countries and the Pacific Rim. Sadly, Woodard died at the height of her career, before an exhibition of her work in Germany.

The model, Maudelle Bass Weston (1908-1989), was a well-known African-American concert dancer. Born in Early County, Georgia, she later moved to California and was the first black American to study with the choreographer Lester Horton. In 1940, she danced with the American Ballet Theater in Agnes de Mille’s ballet Black Ritual, and in the 1950s she appeared with the dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus. As a model, she posed for numerous artists including Diego Rivera, Edward Weston, and Weegee. [news release with additional photos - opens new window].

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