Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Articles about Hayward L. Oubre
American Visions. “Hayward L. Oubre: Wired—The Sculptor, Not the Magazine” October/November 1997, pp. 26-28.
“Hollow Yes Man!” exclaims artist Hayward L. Oubre, sprinting to the wire sculpture that he created in 1965 in response to a messy clash with his employers that he’s about to describe. Animated and intense, he thrusts his hand into the hole where the mouth should be and says, “This is nothing but a hollow; it’s yellow. ….[The sculpture] is black because all of the people involved were black. You have not arms, you have no legs, because power says, ‘Come to me and I’m going to tell you off,’ I finished this when I came here. My hands were bleeding. He has no heart: hot air. No guts: hot air.
“The president calls he dean and tells the dean to write a damn letter. I know it came from the president. I write my resignation to the president. ‘Hollow Yes Man’ because power dictates what you do. … Power uses you like toilet paper and throws you away. I don’t let people do that to me. ‘Hollow Yes Man.’ What he’s telling you is only what somebody at the top has to say.
“He couldn’t see that I could be a free thinker, that I didn’t get involved and bow down to power. I don’t get with power. ‘Hollow Yes Man.’ This is the attitude that power has. This doesn’t represent any man. It represents power humiliating you.”
“Hollow Yess Man,” an abstract, futuristic piece with yellow gaping holes, is the result of a convoluted dispute that Oubre had with his employers at Alabama State College, which culminated in his departure and a new job at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina in 1966. The episode points to a reason why Oubre’s talent has gone largely unrecognized.
Juan Logan, a Baltimore-based painter and sculptor, met Oubre 20 years ago at Winston-Salem State, where Logan was exhibiting. “I think what happened with Hayward over the years,” Logan says, “at least early on, is that he elected not to be a willing participant in the process. And that process… is the promotion of, the development of, one’s work as an artist. A lot of people did not have the opportunity to be exposed to his work. And while we’ve all always know about Hayward’s work, it never received the exposure I think it deserved.”
Logan points out that racism in the 1940s and ‘50s—when Oubre’s career in the arts began—cast a shadow over the art world, but prejudice was not solely responsible for Oubre’s lack of exposure. His contempt for power has not helped his artistic career.
“That’s a Catch-22 situation,” Logan says. “You don’t want to deal with power, but at the same time, you can’t get what you want if you don’t deal with the power. That’s the reality. Like it or not, the reality is that we all play some political game in this arena.
“You can’t receive the critical acclaim—in other words, have truly critical writing take place about your work—unless it is out there, to be seen. And for years he didn’t have it out there.”
Ken Bloom, a curator and art consultant, adds: “It’s true that he doesn’t like playing the game. It’s true that at the time he was coming up, it would have been extremely difficult for anyone to have become recognized, especially if they were as uncompromising as Oubre.”
Hayward Oubre, a mentally and physically fit octogenarian and widower, lives in a shrine to himself. It’s an appropriate place for a man who doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that his art should rest in major museums, above the works of Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Here in the middle of a room in his Winston-Salem home, for example, is a life-size colt. “Young Horse,” completed in 1958, rises from its wooden base like some archetype poised to give credence to Jung’s collective unconscious. Its hoofs, mane, tail and flank are constructed of intricately woven wire. The sculpture appears—indeed, feels—sturdy enough to support a small child. But where there could be more wire, there’s space. This is not stone or wood or bronze, and the absence of substance is what gives it substance. Light and air are as integral to the work as the metal that gives it definition.
If Oubre’s wire sculptures were to come to life, their personalities would undoubtedly mirror their creator’s. The fat owl that occupies a prominent place on the table in front of Oubre’s living room window might be the one who carries on about race relations and Gestalt psychology. The rooster defiantly poised on the opposite table might expound on the relationship of art and athletics. “The Prophet,” a 5-foot 11-inch robed figure that guards the front door, might be the one to explain the difference between religion and spirituality, with the latter being the most important.
Bloom, who curated Oubre’s last one-man show in 1993 at the Spirit Square Gallery in Charlotte, N.C., finds Oubre’s sculpture intriguing. “It represents both his engineering ability and his iconography,” Bloom says. “He uses a lot of religious themes… The African head, the Moses figure, the face of Jesus, the Greek chorus—they’re all a sort of high-minded symbolism. But they’re not pretentious at all. They’re wonderfully organic.
“One of the things we did in the show,” Bloom explains, “was to post some of his drawings around his sculptures and then light the sculptures and then light the sculptures to project a shadow onto the wall. And a lot of his pieces actually looked like the lines in his drawings. There’s a lot consistency in the form of his lines. That’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain.”
Behind “The Young Horse” lie more of these incredible creations, as varied in genre as Oubre’s paintings, collages and drawings that decorate the walls. There’s “Startled Woman,” a multicolored wire abstract that Oubre likes to shake to show how a woman startled would behave. And there’s the tall “Topless No More,” a woman wearing a blue bra and nothing else. It is a realistic tribute to a waitress at a topless bar who, to protest a local ordinance outlawing toplessness, donned a bra and shed everything else.
Oubre, the retired chairman of the art department at Winston-Salem State University, has reaped a dozen honors and has been shown in nearly 50 exhibits. His etchings were part of last year’s traveling exhibit “Alone in the Crowd,” a collection of famous African American artists that included Bearden, Charles White and John Wilson.
Oubre was born in 1916 in New Orleans, the youngest of three siblings. He was Dillard University’s first art major, graduating during the Depression, when there were few opportunities for a black man with a degree in art. A fellow Dillard graduate suggested that Oubre enroll at Atlanta University, where the climate would likely be more hospitable for a young, gifted and black art major.
“Atlanta was one of the best experiences I ever had, because I had two great teachers,” Oubre says, adding that the teachers were the main reasons he enrolled, because the school didn’t offer a graduate degree in art.
Painter Hale Woodruff and sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, two of the many bright lights of the Harlem Renaissance, became his mentors. Oubre says that Woodruff was a master: “He studied with Diego Rivera in Mexico. He was an extraordinarily good muralist.” On several occasions, Woodruff became one of Oubre’s benefactors, commissioning his student to paint a room. Oubre was always appreciative of the $5 he received for the task.
“Ms Prophet was a unique person,” Oubre recalls. “She had big pieces of sculpture in our studio. During those days you had to copy; copying is how you learned to be a draftsman. Originality was another thing. So I could set up in clay and everybody would say how wonderful it was. I was an A student.
One day, Prophet shared with the class cookies that she had baked herself. When she offered some to Oubre, he politely turned them down. Offended, Prophet later admonished him for being discourteous. “I said, ‘Miss Prophet, may I explain to you? I just don’t eat between meals.’ Miss Prophet had a crush on me. But you know why I didn’t take advantage of it? Who you know might get mad at you. Who you know might get fired. Who you know might die. But what you know will stay with you.”
When a student union was being built at Tuskegee Institute, a school official asked Woodruff to recommend an artist who could provide the creative touches for the new building. Woodruff suggested Oubre. Having spent 18 months in Atlanta, Oubre packed his bags and left for Tuskegee, Ala.
Once again, Oubre’s artwork attracted attention. A school administrator stopped him on campus one day to suggest that he visit George Washington Carver, who lived and worked on campus. With some trepidation, Oubre took one of his bookends—an African face sculpted of wood that now sits on his living-room coffee table—to the man’s apartment. As soon as Carver opened the door, Oubre handed him the bookends. While Carver’s sensitive hands absorbed the piece, Oubre spewed praises. “I wish I could do things as easily as you do,” he said.
Carver, “delivered a soliloquy” on how nothing had come easily, but he had never given up trying. What was important about the meeting was that Oubre was invited back. “But I never went back, because I was always busy.”
Oubre’s Tuskegee days coincided with the start of World War II. He was drafted, and instead of being sent off to fight, he went to Canada to help build the Alcan Highway. The weather was brutal, and the living conditions were just as harsh. Oubre’s participation in that engineering feat has, belatedly, brought him nearly as much recognition as his art.
When he returned home, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of Iowa. He was only the third black man to earn a master of fine arts degree. After graduation, he taught at Florida A&M University and then at Alabama State College.
“The Prophet,” the lifelike sculpture that watches over Oubre’s living room and that enjoys his animated accounts of his life, was the first of his wire works to create a stir. He completed it in the 1950s, while he was teaching at Alabama State. “People from all over,” Oubre exclaims. “They couldn’t believe it. It was the first big piece I made. I had no references—no body to study, because nobody had ever done wire like this before. I’ve had white guys from museums and galleries come look at my artwork. That’s why I say, If I was white, I’d be rich as hell. I’m too damn sophisticated to be a black man.”
Images: p. 26, Hayward Oubre and wire sculpture
p. 27, “Young Horse,” 1958 (wire sculpture)
p. 27, “Topless No More,” 1980s (wire sculpture)
p. 27, “Startled Woman,” 1952 (wire sculpture)
p. 28, Hayward Oubre at Tuskegee Institute in 1941
p. 28, “Hollow Yes Man,” 1965 (wire sculpture)
Carolina Perspective Magazine “An African-American ‘Renaissance Artist.” Vol. 2, No. 2, 1996, pp. 10-11.
If Hayward L. Oubre’s wire sculptures were suddenly to possess anthropomorphic qualities, their personalities would undoubtedly mirror their creator’s.
The fat owl that occupies a prominent place in front of Oubre’s living room window might be the one who carries on about race relations and Gestalt psychology. The rooster defiantly poised on the opposite corner of the same table might expound on the relationship of art and athletics. “The Prophet,” a 5’11” robed figure that guards the front door, might be the one to explain the difference between religion and spirituality, with the latter being the most important. From the mouth of the black abstract sculpture behind the door might come convoluted parables in response to simple questions.
There are dozens more of these wire symbols in the basement of his Winston-Salem, N.C. home, along with an assemblage of drawings, paintings, and etchings. If they all talked, it would take a lifetime to hear their stories.
What Oubre (pronounced Oo-bray) and his art will become is the purview of art historians. What he has become is an artist who is listed in Who’s Who in American Art, has reaped a dozen honors, and whose works have been shown in nearly 50 exhibits. His etchings are currently part of a traveling exhibit of famous Black artists. “Alone in a Crowd,” the exhibits title, includes such masters as Romare Bearden, Charles White, and John Wilson.
“I know why I’m a good artist, I’m a Renaissance man,” Oubre said.
It started in New Orleans, when at birth in he early part of this century, Oubre became the youngest of three siblings. (He deflects questions about his age, but a good estimate would put him years past 70.) While in elementary school, he was smitten by a cast of a Michelangelo sculpture. His love for the Italian artist became the inspiration to try art himself and he discovered that his drawings were good. His teachers encouraged him, and so did his mother.
At Dillard University, it was art and athletics, a combination that remains essential to Oubre the man. He played football and ran track. As for art, “Anything I saw…I tried to copy.” He graduated during the Depression, when there were few opportunities for a Black man with a degree in art. At the urgings of a fellow student, he moved to Atlanta. Recognizing his talent, a teacher recommended that Oubre take on an art project at Tuskegee Institute. After 18 months, he was off to the Alabama college.
At Tuskegee, a friend spotted bookends Oubre had sculpted of an African face. She suggested that he show one off to the school’s president. With some trepidation Oubre said he took one to the mans’s house and knocked on the door. As soon as George Washington Carver opened it, Oubre struck the booend in his hands. Carver’s “sensitive hands” absorbed the piece while Oubre told him, “I wish I could do things as easily as you do.” The great inventor “delivered a soliloquy” about how nothing had come easy, but he had never given up trying. What was important about that meeting, Oubre said, was that he was invited back.
He got drafted during World War II, and instead of being sent off to fight, he went to Canada to help build the Alcan Highway. It is an achievement that has brought him almost as much recognition as his art.
Although Oubre is the color of a manila folder and has often been mistaken for White, he has been forced to taste the bitter pill of racism. Those experiences have had an indelible effect, and his conversation is riddled with opinions on Blacks and Whites.
He believes that such Black artists as Bearden and Lawrence were able to achieve recognition because they went “primitive”…because that would sell.
“This is culture. This ain’t no primitive art,” he said waving his arm around his living room of sculptures who, for that moment, were just listening.
Langley, Jerry. “Overlooked, But Unbowed.” International Review of African American Art, vol. 17, no. (2001): 13-22.
I am not a lesser known artist!…I am established as a master artist…I have artwork that can go to any museum…You are not going to see another artist that can do this [type of wire sculpture]…I have fought racism all my life…Black people who’ve written books, they got together after they came to know me and black balled me…There is a conspiracy of omission against me because no one can tell me what to do…My work, they don’t understand it. They don’t know how to get to me and they don’t have the time to listen to me…I am alone in the crowd…I am my own man. I know who I am and why I am who I am…You’ve never seen this sort of work before. That ought to be enough to write something unusual—that this man is unusual. I am a human being just like every other artist. I have a right to get my spot in the sunlight because I’ve earned it against the odds.
These are the words of Hayward L. Oubre, an artist who has been creating impressive works of art—some quite unusual—for more than half a century. It is obvious that he views his artwork with great pride as well he should. Equally apparent is the fact that he is bitter and frustrated because he strongly feels that his contributions have been largely overlooked.
I became acquainted with Oubre’s art by accident several years ago as I was searching for works by another artist. An art dealer who operates a small gallery from his suburban home just outside Washington, DC called my attention to one of Oubre’s prints and encouraged me to buy it. It was an abstract etching entitled Silent Sentinel, which portrays his reaction to the annihilation of human life that occurred when the United States bombed Hiroshima in World War II. The dealer showed me a photograph of the print in the catalogue for the exhibit, Alone in the Crowd: Prints of the 1930-40’s by African-American Artists. I was impressed and wondered why I had not heard about Oubre before.
Getting additional information on Oubre proved to be a challenge initially because I could not readily find much published material on him. However, with the help of artist Sam Gilliam, I gained access to a number of documents and was able to locate a trove of information on Oubre in the archives of the Winston-Salem State University O’Kelly Library. I was also able to interview the artist himself at his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Born in New Orleans in 1916, Oubre has had an extraordinary art career. He graduated from Dillard University in 1939 and was the first student from the school to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Later, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa.
Oubre has worked in diverse media: drawing, etching, painting, collage and sculpture (wire as well as plaster). His work has been shown at more than 50 exhibits across the country and has received many awards at various competitions, including 10 awards from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) during its annual art competitions that were held between 1946 and 1969. These exhibits and honors occurred principally in the southeastern part of the country during the prime of his career.
In addition to Silent Sentinel, three other Oubre etchings were a part of the Alone in a Crowd traveling exhibit that toured the country between 1993-1997. This exhibit showcased a collection of prints by many noted African American artists, including Charles White, Allan Rohan Crite, and Hale Woodruff. Oubre’s etchings along with the rest of the collection, are now a part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clark Atlanta University also has eight of Oubre’s works in its permanent collection.
Oubre also devoted more than three decades of his life to the development of art departments and the mentoring of young artists at historically black colleges and universities. He was an instructor and chairman of the art departments at Florida A&M University from 1949 to 1949, Alabama A&M University from 1950 and 1965, and Winston-Salem State University between 1965 and 1981. Among his students were Floyd Coleman, William Anderson, William Henderson, Harper T. Phillips, Amos White, II, Arthur L. (“Al”) Britt, Paul Gary and Herman “Kofi” Bailey.
William Henderson recalls that, at Alabama State College, Oubre used the “open studio concept” that permitted students to advance as fast as their talents would take them. “It was, “ says Henderson, “the most exciting situation I had ever been in and I was able to excel in that environment. He was much more that a professor to me; he taught me how to think, how to reason and about the life style expect of artists on the fringes of wester civilization.” Whe he went on to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, Henderson states that he was well-prepared for the challenge.
During his tenure at Winston-Salem, Oubre challenged convention when he corrected the color triangle that was devised by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German philanthropist who is known for his genius. The color triangle has been used by artists for mixing colors. Oubre says that he saw the color triangle and wasn’t impressed because he found mistakes in it. He employed mathematics on a computer to devise a new three-intensity color wheel to prove that Goethe’s color triangle was mathematically incorrect. He also prepared “A Concise Study of Color Mixing and Color Relationships” in 1966 and received copyright for his correction of the color triangle in 1975.
Following his retirement from teaching at Winston-Salem State University, Oubre was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by the governor in 1982, one of the highest honors presented to outstanding North Carolinians.
Surrounded by walls and floors filled with his work, Oubre summoned more that 70 years of memories. “I got started in elementary school,” he says. “I could copy anything. My teachers would take me from my class for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for Easter and other holidays and give me colored chalk and I’d go to the black board and copy out of books and make big drawings. That sort of gave me the impetus to be an artist. I thought being and artist was just being able to copy things someone else had done.
When he reached Dillard University in 1935, his reputation for drawing followed him: “Girls would say ‘draw me’ and they got mad at me because I didn’t have time to draw them.” Oubre had little spare time at Dillard because he had to work his way through school. “I was a janitor and made 20 cents a damn hour,” he says. “I didn’t have any extra money. I couldn’t do anything but work and deal with my art and athletics.”
Oubre ran track and excelled in football as cocaptain of his team. “I was tough as hell and so well coordinated that I could ply both ways 60 minutes and do things no one else could do. Being a tough football player, they had to respect. I earned respect physically.”
He emphasizes that when he was a youngster he was bent on making something out of his life because he saw too many people wasting their lives. “Everything that is in this country now was in New Orleans when I was growing up—dope, prostitution, gambling, stealing. I didn’t take part in that. I was a fearless thinker, but I lived a cautious life.”
Oubre graduated from Dillard University in 1939 during the Great Depression when there were few opportunities for blacks, especially ones with fine arts degrees. “I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get a job and I couldn’t go to a white school in New Orleans because it was closed out to us completely.” Fortunately, he ran into a recent Dillard graduate as he was agonizing over his dilemma and was encouraged to go to Atlanta to study under two noted Harlem Renaissance artists, painter Hale Woodruff and sculptor Nancy Prophet. “They didn’t have a graduate degree [program],” notes Oubre,” but I went there and they showed me things I hadn’t seen before.”
At Atlanta University, Oubre studied under the two masters for 18 months. Nancy Prophet gave him extensive exposure to the works of Michelangelo and he was greatly impressed. “I studied all of his works,” says Oubre. “He is the greatest person to ever have done marble. His transition from one plane to another is amazing. “Prophet game him a model of one of Michelangelo’s sculptures so that he could reproduce the work of a master. He got an “A.”
Prophet was “an unusual person”, says Oubre and confides that she had a crush on him. “She brought some cookies for [the students] and put them where I was working and I said ‘Miss Prophet, no thank you.’ She turned around and left, and she came back and said ‘Mr. Oubre, you know you don’t refuse the hostess when she offers you cookies.’ I said ‘Miss Prophet, I’m sorry I don’t eat between meals.’ I said ‘Miss Prophet, I didn’t want to get entangled there because she would have been able to control me and I won’t let nobody control me.”
While he was in Atlanta, Oubre registered for the draft with the Morehouse men and, in 1941, he went to the Tuskegee Institute on the recommendation of Hale Woodruff to work on a special art project. An official of the Institute suggested, to Oubre’s surprise, that he meet George Washington Carver and arranged an appointment for him. Impressed with his artwork, the Tuskegee official encouraged Oubre to take one of the book ends he had created as a gift for Carver.
When Carver opened the door, Oubre presented the bookend and stood in awe of the great man. “He took it,” says Oubre, “and looked away from me and started to feel it. And, then he said ‘Come in young man.’ I wanted to say something important to this genius and I said: ‘Dr. Carver, I wish I could get ideas as easily as you do.’ He [Carver] got angry at the idea and said ‘I don’t get any ideas easily. I make mistakes, but I never give up until I find the answer.” Oubre thought to himself that this was what he had been doing all of his life as well. Although he was invited back for another visit, Oubre didn’t go. “I was too busy with my art and I never impose myself on important people.”
At the start of World War II, Oubre was drafted into the army where he served in segregated unites between 1941 and 1943. Always an independent and creative thinker, Oubre challenged convention here as well. When he was told that the army’s motto for its troops was: “Yours not to reason why, yours but to do or die,” de defiantly developed a second verse to repeat to himself: “Since everybody eventually dies, I dare to reason why.” And, when he was told as a recruit at Ft. Belvoir that it was better to wound, rather than kill, the enemy in order to keep the medics, nurses, and doctors behind enemy lines busy, he responded by saying to his white instructor. “Sir, I heard every thing you said, but when I get to the front lines, I am going to shoot the enemy right between the eyes and hot give him a second chance to kill me.” “When you looks things holistically, you can see,” he says.
But Oubre never made it to the front line. He was one of nearly 3700 black army engineers who were sent to Alaska to help build the 1522-mile Alcan Highway, the first land link between the United States and Alaska. With brutal weather—sometimes 70 degrees below zero—and harsh living conditions, the soldiers completed the road against extraordinary odds in eight months. It was an engineering feat that most said couldn’t be done.
It took 50 years for these black soldiers to receive recognition for the feat. In 1993, a ceremony was held at the Pentagon to pay tribute to Oubre and other survivors of the group. Oubre values the engineering skills he developed in the army because he has utilized them in creating his art.
Oubre married Juanita Hurel in 1945 and used the G.I. Bill to further pursue his art studies. At first he wanted to go to Cranbrook Academy of Art but was persuaded by one of his former Dillard instructors to go to the University of Iowa for the MFA degree. “Iowa was the strongest art school in America,” says Oubre. However, he points out that blacks lived in segregated dormitories and that it was a racist school: “They didn’t want you to get that MFA. It was for white people.” Only two African American graduates, Elizabeth Catlett and Houston E. Chandler, had preceded him there. He was the only black person in his class. “But,”says Oubre, “I covered myself. I lived a cautious life with my wife and I wouldn’t go drinking with the guys.”
While the school required students to be proficient in three areas of art, Oubre says that he was proficient in four: drawing, painting, sculpture and etching. He notes that both Catlett and Chandler got their MFA degrees in sculpture and stresses that he got his in oil painting. “I deliberately went into painting to break the monotony of [blacks] being stereotyped to be good sculpture artists because they came from Africa.”
During the two and one half years he spent at University of Iowa between 1946 and 1948, he studied at the studio of Argentine artist Mauricio Lasansky, whom Oubre calls the “greatest printmaker.” There, he created seven prints—the four that were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Self Portrait, which now in the permanent collection of Clark Atlanta University; Aftermath, which depicts the total destruction of the United States navy at Pearl Harbor when Japan bombed it; and Entanglement, depicting the moment of confrontation between a man and a snake.
Oubre explains that he was inspired to create Entanglement by an incident that occurred in one of his classes. “I went to class that day and somebody made a snide remark about something racist, and they though it was too big for me to handle. Without looking at anything, I made Entanglement. It’s a black man with a hatchet and [a] snake, which represents the white race and he is going to lop [the snake’s head] head off. They knew what I was doing but couldn’t stop it because I was too damn good technically. Racism made me do that picture. I fought racism with my art.”
Prominent among the many paintings he has created are several figurative oils—Cotton Picker, Prodigal Son, and Man with a Push Cart, which was inspired by the street scenes he saw in Atlanta when he was a apprentice to Prophet and Woodruff. At the other end of the broad spectrum of Oubre themes are Big Bang, a painting which depicts the explosion that created the universe; and Lunar Robot, which relates to the exploration of the moon by the United States and Russia. And, among his powerful sculptures are Stevedore and Seated Woman, which show that he is just as talented in this medium as in others.
Although Oubre is proficient in many media, he has received the most of his recognition and acclaim for his wired sculptures. Armed with a pair of pliers, a wire cutter and a cutting edge mind, the artist has produced life-size sculptures from old wire clothes hangers. This never ceases to amaze those who see them. Showing me his toos, he says “Here is all I use. Two pliers [one to cut, one to bend] and no heat. I use wire clothes hangers like a tailor uses thread.” He doesn’t weld or fasten the wires together in any way except by twisting. In producing these works of art, he says that he has employed the engineering skills he learned in the army and equates the structure of his sculptures to those of bridges and skyscrapers because they are strong, flexible and “mostly hollow.” “This is engineering,” he says.
The reviews of his wire sculptures have been lavish with praise. In a recent notice about art exhibits in New Orleans that were exploring the impact of Alexander Calder, the originator and master of wire mobiles, on contemporary artists, Oubre is referred to as the “Master of the Stabile” because of his stationary wire sculptures. Also, a local critic wrote that in “the world of wire sculpture, no one matches Hayward Oubre’s ingenuity and vision.”
Oubre began creating his wire sculpture after he became bitterly disappointed by the quality of the art that was selected for first prize at one of Atlanta University’s annual, juried exhibitions that showcased works of black artists. “I went to wire because I was mad,” he says. Knowing that he could do better, Oubre said to himself at the time: “I’m going to do something to make people see that I am an unusual artist. I was mad as hell.”
So, one night, Oubre took some metal clothes hangers and bent them into the shape of a rooster. He used solder for the eyes—the only time he ever used heat in the creation of a wire sculpture. He entered the piece in the 1956 Atlanta University, annual art show, but it was rejected. Oubre points to his life-sized sculpture and stresses that it is mostly empty space like a bridge.
True to character, Oubre was not discouraged by the rejection of his first wire sculpture. The following year, he submitted another one, Crown of Thorns, for the 16th annual art show. It won first prize and was acquired for the university’s permanent collection.
Oubre has made 40 wire sculptures over the years. While he was at WSSU, he never ran out of clothes hangers. Students and others saved hangers and sold them to the artist for two for a nickel.
Most Oubre’s multicolored wire creations are located at his home. They surround him like family in the absence of his wife (who is deceased) and his daughter. Among the most compelling pieces are the Prophet, a 5’11” high robed, Moses-like figure that stands against the wall in his living room; and the Young Horse, a life-sized sculpture of a young colt which stands in the middle of his basement and is constructed in great anatomical detail with intricately woven wire. As you look at their size, symmetry, and inner space, each appears to be alive with its own spiritual personality.
Because of his light complexion and French last name, Oubre says that he has often been mistaken for white. As a result, he has witnessed racism from both sides—from the white side, when he was mistaken for white and was able to hear the “code words” and negative things whites say about blacks in private; and from the black side, when his blackness was known and he felt the full effects of racism. “This used frighten me,” he says.
Early on, some of his friends suggested that he pass for white to avoid racism. He defiantly refused to do this because, he says, he never wanted to be white. “I am proud to be a black man.” And, he says with emotion: “I stay at home now [because] I am tired of being mistaken for white. I don’t want to be mistaken for white. I don’t get a kick out of that. I want to be a black who is a damn accomplished man.”
In discussing his concern that his art has not been duly recognized with the black community, Oubre senses a “conspiracy of omission” on the part of black writers and art historians. With bitterness and frustration in his voice, he states: [Blacks] know me. They’ve seen my art…They’ve said that they have never seen anything like it and [yet] they have tried to stop me and told me to do black art…make it exclusively black.”
Over the past century, there was an ongoing debate about the role and prerogatives of black artists. That debate focused on whether the primary element in African American art should be representational and grounded in social issues and ancestral heritage or whether black artists should be free to take their inspiration from their total environment and express it in any manner they choose. Some African American artists, such as Oubre, who have embraced the latter philosophy have been subjected to sharp criticism at times, especially during the civil rights and black conscience movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Some say, however, that Oubre’s independent nature and general disinterest in marketing his works are also factors in his inability to get broad recognition and acclaim. One former gallery owner noted in 1992 that Oubre had not exhibited his work for more than a decade. And when it was exhibited a year later in Charlotte, North Carolina, reportedly, none of it was for sale.
Although he has sold some pieces through several agents over the last few years, much of his art (especially his wire sculpture) still appears to be primarily available for viewing only at his home. He lets you know that he doesn’t relish the thought of working through agents who, he says with disdain, dictate where artists exhibit and collect 40% of the sales price.
Oubre is a complex person. He is a very intelligent and witty individual who looks at things wholistically and often answers questions with questions or parables, thereby challenging his listener to think and analyze. It also appears that he has become hardened by his experiences and has isolated himself in his home, which some say is a “shrine” to himself. Yet it is clear that he is searching for some acceptable way to reach out to others—perhaps through a museum—to gain broader appreciation and exposure for his art.
While he is getting up in age, Oubre says he still has “lots of fire” left in him and plans to be around for a long time. At age 85, he appears to be in top physical condition. He works out daily in his home with his Charles Atlas exercise program and proudly pounds his stomach to show that he does not have a “damn belly.” This exercise regime has helped him to maintain the superior hand strength that he has used to create his wire sculptures. Nevertheless, he is beginning to sense his mortality and expresses his desire that his art get its proper recognition before he dies.
That recognition is coming, bit by bit. A freelance writer, Mark Moss, is preparing to write a book about his career; his alma mater Dillard University, plans to catalog his artwork; and he will be the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Cheryl Dixon, chairman of Dillard’s art department.
He has also received a signed copy of the book Collection African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas from the author, Halima Taha. It bears the author’s inscription: “For Hayward Oubre, Thank you for your contribution to the art world. Peace and tremendous regards.” Oubre notes with great pleasure that she said “contributions to the art world” and not contributions to “black art.” And, with equal pleasure, he observes: “She sent it to me out of respect—the most important thing you can get.”
Images: p. 13, Hayward Louis Oubre and wire sculpture
p. 14, Silent Sentinel, n.d., (etching)
p. 14, Prophet, 1957 (wire sculpture)
p. 15, Verily I say Unto You, n.d. (graphite)
p. 16 above, Man with A Push Cart, (painting)
p. 16, below on left, Prodigal Son, 1950 (painting)
p. 16, bottom, artwork on pool table as well as wall
p. 17, Entanglement, 1947 (pencil drawing)
p. 17, Stevedore, 1945 (plaster sculpture)
Oubre, H.L. “Directions of Modern Art.” Art Review. Fall, 1966: (4-5)
Modern art has now been in the midst of contemporary man long enough to afford those who dare—a sober look! There has been magniloquent fanfare throughout the well established art period know as modern. Artists were more often than not boisterously vocal, historians eruditely verbose, about movements which have been ushered, one upon the other, on to the turbulent scene.
What, then, in retrospect discloses modern art’s developmental pattern? The opening wedge came in the entrenched controlling hierarchy, the Royal Academy. His importance to modern art stems from his affinity for classical ideas; in this respect he was the forerunner for the western art world’s more favorable attitude towards expressions of the past, as well as its enthusiasm for divergent esthetic viewpoints emanating from exotic cultures, which challenged static vocabularies of many individual artists. Thus, he opened the flood gates for a widespread concentrated period of revolts.
Starting with the conservative, classical attitude these revolts moved erratically within the field of abstraction. For the most part, “modern” revolutionary movements have been left of center and un-visual minded in approach; none but Dadaism, has attained the radical terminal point (Non-Objective). The term un-visual minded art is intentionally used rather than “non-visual minded art.” Children the world over as well as artists of primitive civilizations who are “non-visually minded” produce art which is expressionistic, but not self-consciously so. Numerous artists, however, of the “modern” period deliberately created art oriented away from camera influences—hence the term un-visual minded. In other instances some movements, although revolutionary at the time, were right of center and visual minded in approach; none, except Dadaism, reached the reactionary terminal point (Naturalism). These movements were oriented in the camera’s direction.
If the visual minded theory is scrutinized carefully one will find, instead of Impressionism being the culminating phase of the Renaissance, Futurism being the culminating phase of the Renaissance, Futurism should be given that distinction. Motivation, in some instances, for Futurism stemmed from ruined, blurred, exposures of the era’s slow shutter speed cameras, as well as from the cinema.
Dadaism being completely negativistic and nihilistic, if we consider it at all as a serious movement, has to be placed on either end of the field of abstraction. The movement ridiculed all existing artistic standards; anything, no matter what, could be exhibited at their shows. Their avowed intent was total destruction of all “Isms”—a movement to end art itself! Some participants were first-rate artists, consequently their productions missed the mark and must be included under some “Isms” other than Dada. For the most part Dada goals were unobtainable. One notable exception, however, was the Dada Exhibition in Colonge. Here the irrationality fostered by Dada adherents bore some important strange fruit! In noting the conglomeration which made up that exhibition, among other things were—ready-mades, such as an equarium, alarm clock, head of woman’s hair, wooden arm, hatchet and chain, egg board and bell; also included were objects of nature, pieces of wood, eggs and water.
The show’s high point occurred when everything was broken or smashed and the water spilled over the floor—complete destruction of the exhibition. Alas, the dichotomy is obvious! Dadaisms real importance, it seems, was that it clearly defined boundary lines of creativity in the visual arts.
Some degree of abstraction must be dealt with in order to produce art; in other words, all art automatically falls somewhere within the field of abstraction. The act of abstraction is nothing more or less than the artist’s way revealing a facet or facets of the cosmic order inherent in nature. Actually artists should not delude themselves into believing that they should strive to either reproduce or ignore nature—for in both instances the end result would be non art.
Many artists, for the most part, working in the modern vein are in reality academic, since they are rehashing “Isms” which were formerly dynamic movements. After innovation takes place repetitious academic practice by lesser artists is inevitable.
Image: Directional Chart of Modern Art
“Oubre Winner of Fine Arts Prize.” The Sepia Socialite, Saturday, June 10, 1939
New Orleans, La., June 8
A collection of student work, representing the year’s activity in the art department will bring to a close the 1938-1939 Dillard University exhibition season. The exhibition opened June 1 and will continue until June 15. The most impressive work of the show is that of Hayward Oubre, a senior and an outstanding football and track star. His sculpture of Negro heads, his mural panels containing abstract patterns of campus life, and his water color compositions show a sincere expression and a strong grasp of his various media. He has been declared winner of the 1939 art award by the Fine Arts Club of New Orleans.
Image: Oubre holding brush and palette while standing in front of work on easel
McMillan, Felecia P. “Historical and Contemporary Hero in our Midst, “I am living proof that you don’t have to Tom and make it in America.” Chronicle (Winston-Salem), February 13, 1997:A1, A7
Hayward Louis Oubre’s (pronounced Oo-bray) wire sculptures look like line drawings with perfect parallels and angles. He is known as a master of lines, curvilinear lines. His life-size “Peerless Ram” stands in the atrium of the O’Kelly Library as the first art commissioned by Winston-Salem State University in 1964. He was the chairman of the Art Department of WSSU from 1965 to 1981. He served as the curator of the Selma Burke Art Gallery from 1984 to 1990. “I am living proof that you don’t have to Tom to make it in America. I’m proud to be a black man.” Oubre said.
He displays photographs of the three most important women in his life proudly on his piano: his mother, Amelie Marie Keys, his wife, Juanita Bernice Hurel, and his daughter Amelie Geneva.
“I respect women because my mother taught me to do so, I don’t have to lord over a woman to prove I am a man,” Oubre said. “I’m a free black man, and my wife was a free black woman,” Oubre said.
He is a painter, a wire sculptor, a wood sculptor, a soldier, and an engineer. He is currently listed in “Who’s Who in American Art for 1996.” When he received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine Award from Gov. Jim Hunt 13 years ago, he thought all retirees in North Carolina received it. He said he later discovered the importance of it when he saw a gentleman receive it on a news program.
“The Order of the Long Leaf Pine award is considered among the most prestigious awards presented by the governor of North Carolina. Some of the past winners include Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines, Oprah Winfrey, Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It is presented to individuals who have a proven record of service to the State of North Carolina.
Oubre was recognized in the Hall of Heroes in 1993 for his commitment as a soldier. He was one of the more than 3,000 African-American men who were sent to Alaska to construct the first highway that connected the United States with Alaska in 1942. It took 50 years for the black soldiers who worked on the Alaskan highway to be recognized. The naming of the Black Veterans Recognition Bridge on the Alaska Highway over the Gerstle River involved an act ob the legislature of the state of Alask which was approved by the governor June 1, 1993. Oubre was the sergeant of the regiment. He was recognized at the Pentagon.
Oubre has been featured in “Upscale Magazine,” “Carolina Perspective” and “Fine Art for January 1997.” Collectors still buy his self portrait. He used contour lines to make three-dimensional perception instead of light/dark expression.
“The three-dimensional world is God’s world,” said Oubre. Although he does not attend church or identify with a particular religion, he said he respects God and His laws.
He drew the portrait by looking himself in a mirror, and it only took 10 minutes. The sketch is in the permanent collection at Clarke University in Atlanta.
Although Oubre has received many honors, he has also had many brushes with racism.
“Racism will never cease in this country, because of slavery. It is like a cancer,” he said.
Some of his friends advised him to “pass” in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of racism, but Oubre said, “I wasn’t passing; he white people passed me,” he said. He said he has overheard many conversations that were far from complimentary to African American because his complexion deceived those around him.
“They can’t put me in jail, so they put in books, because my life is constructive. I am a disciplined man,” he said. He said he is a vegetarian and drinks several gallons of distilled water a week.
Oubre often uses nonconventional means to achieve his level of form, technique and color. Another challenge of convention became his when he corrected the Color Triangle devised by Johhann Wolfgang von Goethe. Oubre said that James T. Diggs gave him the triangle and asked him to examine it. “I give him credit for calling this to my attention,” Oubre said. Oubre said he used math to design a three-intensity color wheel, thereby proving von Goethe’s color triangle to be mathematically incorrect. He received the copyright in 1975. In addition, Oubre prepared “A Concise Study of Color Mixing and Color Relationships” in 1966.
“God has all intelligence. He is the active creator of the universe, and He is there to call upon,” said Oubre. “He is the source of my inspiration.”
His first wire sculpture was called “Proud Rooster.” “I am always amazed at God’s creation. I see Him constantly in His miracles and wonders, and I am inspired to use my gift. He gave it to me, and I thank Him for it everday,” he said. Oubre started doing wire sculpture when he studied isometrics as exercise. He maintains agility and power in his hands my molding and shaping clothes hangers. All he uses are pliers to cut the wire, and he paints them with brushes.
Born in New Orleans, Oubre was the youngest of three siblings. While studying at Dillard University, he played football and ran track. He graduated from Dillard with his bachelor’s degree in 1939 and completed his master’s of fine arts degree at University of Iowa in 1948. He served as chairman of painting and sculpture at Florida A&M University from 1948 to 1949. He served as associate professor and chairman of the Art Department at Alabama State University from 1950 to 1965, before going to WSSU.
Oubre works out in his gym daily and prides himself in having superior hand strength.
Oubre recently received a newsletter from the Friends of the Library at WSSU that revealed that the University Records Department received a $1,900.00 grant to document the life of Oubre and Coach Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines.
“It was God who helped me to achieve,” said Oubre. “I bow down only to Him. I bod to no man.”
Page A1. Hayward L. Oubre with wire sculpture “Proud Rooster” and Order of the Long Leaf Pine award.
Page A7. Sgt. Hayward Oubre with soldiers in Alaska that helped build Alcan Highway during World War II.
Hayward Oubre stands with Chief of State of Army when he was recognized in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon in 1993.
Wire sculpture entitle “The Prophet” and “Seated Figure”
Oubre’s life-sized wire sculpture horse.
Painting entitled “Wilted” which describes the psychological state of a black man in America.
Hayward L. Oubre: An Art Bibliography
Hayward Oubre: A Selected Bibliography
Cederholm, Theresa D. Afro-American Artists. Boston: Boston Public Library, 1973.
Dover, Cedric. American Negro Art. Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1960.
Griggs, William, Ed. Philip Merrill. The World War II Regiment That Built the Alaska Military Highway: A Photographic History. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2002.
Igoe, Lynn. 250 Years of Afro-American Art. New York: Bowker, 1981.
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. “African American Art: 20th Century Masterworks.” New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1994.
Moss, R Mark. “An African-American Renaissance Artist.” Carolina Perspective 2, 2 (1996): 10-11.
--------------- “Art & Soul: Six Leaders in Creative Expression,” Upscale Magazine November (1996): 40-46.
--------------- “Hayward L. Oubre: Wired—The Sculptor, Not the Magazine” American Vision October/November (1997): 26-28.
Langley, Jerry. “Overlooked, But Unbowed: Hayward L. Oubre.” The International Review of African American Art 17, 4 (2001): 13-22.
Lindsay, Patterson, comp. The Afro-American in Music and Art. New York:Publishers Co., 1967.
Oubre, H.L. “Directions of Modern Art.” Art Review. Fall, 1966: (4-5)
Pierre-Noel, Lois J. “American Negro Art in Progress.” Negro History Bulletin. October (1967): 6-9
Ploski, Harry A. The Negro Almanac. Detroit: Gale, 1989.
Riggs, Thomas., ed St. James Guide to Black Artists. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1997.
Silvis, Randall. “Road Warriors: The Unsung Heroes of the Alaska Highway.” Destination Discovery, December 1955:(28-33)
Taha, Halima. Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas. New York: Crown, 1998.
Thomison, Dennis. The Black Artist in America: An Index to Reproductions. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991.
Who’s Who in American Art. New York: R.R. Bowker. 1980, 1982-1996.
Who’s Who Among Black Americans. Northbrook, Ill.: Who’s Who Among Black Americans Pub. Co., 1975-1976, 1985.
Hayward L. Oubre: Biography
Biography: Hayward L. Oubre, Jr.
Hayward Louis Oubre, Jr. was born September 17, 1916 in New Orleans, Louisiana to Hayward and Amelie Keyes Oubre. Hayward Jr. and his two sisters were nurtured in a home environment influenced by black and French ancestry, self-sufficiency and intellectual independence.
Oubre began his formal education in New Orlean’s parochial schools. It was during his elementary school years that a teacher first recognized his artistic talents and asked him to draw a series of murals on the walls of selected classrooms.
After graduating from high school he entered New Orlean’s predominantly black Dillard University. While at Dillard Oubre was an illustrator for the college newspaper, played football and ran track. Between working full-time as a janitor (he had to work his way through school to finance his college education) Oubre excelled in both art and athletics. After graduating from Dillard University in 1939, as the first art major, in the midst of the Great Depression there were few employment opportunities for African Americans with degrees in art.
Having few prospects for employment, a chance encounter with a fellow Dillard graduate led Oubre to Atlanta, Georgia to study art under the tutelage of noted Harlem Renaissance artists Hale Woodruff and Nancy Prophet. Oubre studied in Atlanta under Woodruff and Prophet for 18 months.
At the outbreak of World War II, Oubre was drafted into the United States army and served as a master sergeant from 1941 to 1943 in a segregated regiment of 37,000 black army engineers who later constructed Alaska’s1522-mile Alcan Highway.
After completing his tour of duty in the army Oubre returned to New Orleans and married Juanita Hurel in 1945. To this union was born a daughter Amelie Geneva.
He had aspirations to obtain the MFA degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art but a former Dillard University instructor persuaded him to enroll at the University of Iowa. His matriculation at the University of Iowa lasted from 1946 to 1948. His tenure at Iowa also afforded him the opportunity to apprentice in the studio of Argentine master printmaker Mauricio Lasansky. While at Iowa he created seven prints—four of these etchings, Self Portrait, Aftermath, Silent Sentinel and Entanglement are in several major museums and collections in the U.S.
An educator, as well as an artist, Oubre has served on the faculties at Florida A&M University, Alabama State University and Winston-Salem State University. Always having scholarly inclinations, Oubre challenged standard art theories of the day by correcting the color triangle devised by Wolfgang Johann von Goethe. He later further disproved von Goethe’s color theory by devising his own color wheel, which was copyrighted in 1975.
After retiring from Winston-Salem State University, as chairman of the art department in 1981, he was asked by noted sculptor and WSSU graduate Selma Burke to serve as curator of the Selma Burke Art Gallery formerly housed on the campus of Winston-Salem State University.
In addition to having his work shown in 50+ individual and group art exhibitions, Oubre’s work can be found in the permanent collections of Winston-Salem State University, Atlanta University, University of Delaware, The High Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art etc.
Known for his humanitarian deeds, as well as, being an expert in four art mediums he has been recognized by the State of North Carolina (Order of the Long Leaf Pine), U.S. Pentagon, Who’s Who in American Art, and featured in numerous books, magazines and documentary films.
In 2004 Oubre’s etching Entanglement was selected by U.S. book publisher Scribners as the cover design for the paperback edition of noted writer Charles Johnson’s novel Oxherding Tale.
Even though he has retired from active teaching and formal athletics Oubre still creates artwork and maintains a stringent exercise regime.
Introduction to Hayward L. Oubre Site
Hayward L. Oubre. com is an online educational site designed to inform general researchers, K-12 and college students about the life and accomplishments of artist, athlete, educator and army engineer Hayward L. Oubre. The Hayward L. Oubre digital site will also provide the user with a contextual paradigm by which to understand visual art, artistic creativity and Oubre’s ability to succeed against the odds. For instance how was Oubre able to make art within a racially polarized, highly restrictive, money-saturated art world that placed a premium on favoritism, and still main his integrity? This site may provide the answer to this and many more questions about the enigmatic Oubre
Archival materials letters, photographs and articles enable researchers to understand the intimate details of a particular event in history or an individual’s life within the constructs of a historical time period. These source records allow the heretofore “historical character or event” to tell their own story. Primary source materials empower men and women within history to speak in their own voice, and to share their emotions—sorrow, happiness, anger etc. The abundant archival material utilized in the Hayward L. Oubre digital site will afford Oubre the man, artist, educator, engineer, the enigma to tell his own story.
Enjoy your explorations into the world of Hayward L. Oubre.