At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Shawn Hughes is surrounded by American history depicted over the course of six murals painted in vivid colors with nearly life-sized figures.
There's a deck full of slaves about to mutiny on the Amistad, the mutinous captives on trial, an urgent scene in the woods as slaves are about to cross the Ohio River to freedom. There are students enrolling at the historically black Talladega College, bringing pigs and chickens to pay their tuition. And there are industrious workers building the university library.
"Wow," Hughes says. "It makes you think, and wonder."
And then, after spending a few moments to absorb it all, "I’m always drawn to go look at him."
One face in the crowded courtroom scene is a self-portrait: Hughes’ great uncle, Hale Woodruff.
"He always puts his image in his works," Hughes notes.
Though Woodruff isn't as well-known as his contemporary, Thomas Hart Benton, he had a profound influence on 20th century American art.
Woodruff was born in Indiana in 1900, and like many black artists in the 1920s, he left the country for Paris, where he met Henry Ossawa Tanner. He later studied in Mexico with Diego Rivera.
Today Woodruff is best known for a set of historical murals commissioned in 1938 by the historically black Talladega College in Alabama.
For the past few years, those murals have been touring the country in an exhibition organized by the High Museum in Atlanta. After traveling to Dallas, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Birmingham and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the murals have made their final stop in Kansas City.
"Mr. Woodruff was really a pioneer in many ways. First of all, being one of the major teachers mid-20th century at historically black colleges and universities, teaching art when there weren’t that many people teaching in that discipline," says David C. Driskell, a distinguished professor of art emeritus at the University of Maryland in College Park.
In 1942, when Woodruff was at Atlanta University, he founded an annual exhibition for African-American artists.
"That was the only venue where people of color could exhibit on a national scale without the forces of segregation," Driskell says.
"Equally important was the contribution he made to the American art canon by bringing subjects of importance relating to the African American experience," Driskell says. "He was very much bent on helping to tell the history of African Americans by painting murals."
"At a time when remnants of blackface minstrelsy dominated the national representation of blacks, he presented self-possessed, self-actualized individuals who were heroic and accomplished," adds Steven L. Jones, a Philadelphia-based expert in African-American art.
"In that sense, Woodruff’s proud portrayal of his people is a metaphor for all Americans and our values," Jones says.
Shawn Hughes knew there was something special about his great uncle.
"He was a very sophisticated man," Hughes says. "Our family was very outgoing and gregarious, but he was very reserved, very quiet. I mean he had an awesome presence about him."
Woodruff’s wife Theresa was from Topeka; nicknamed Ted, she was Shawn Hughes' grandmother's sister. Other members of the family earned distinction as Kansas City civic leaders: Shawn is the son of Mamie Hughes and the late Leonard Hughes Jr.
Growing up in Kansas City, Hughes knew about Thomas Hart Benton. And he learned about the European painters in high school at Rockhurst. But he didn’t learn about his uncle’s importance until he went to Fisk University in Nashville.
"The first day I walked into the library," Hughes remembers. "I looked to my right and they had a huge exhibit on Uncle Hale. I was so excited about it I ran and I looked and I ran back to the dorm, called my mother collect, and I said, ‘Mom, Mom, they got an entire corner dedicated to Uncle Hale.' She said, 'Yeah now I want you to get off this phone and go read every book, and learn not only about him but learn about Aaron Douglas and the many other great African-American artists in the world.”
The Hughes family connection is why there’s another Woodruff exhibition in the Changing Gallery at the American Jazz Museum. It has smaller pieces from the family collection, such as black-and-white woodcuts, colored abstracts and Christmas cards Woodruff painted for his relatives.
"When you look at a collection like this and you realize the sacrifice that took place, you have to understand the importance and brilliance of this man," says visiting curator Sonie Joi Thompson Ruffin.
"He did what he had to do to make sure that African-American artists were recognized. Now, you can’t get enough black," Ruffin says. "You can’t get enough African-American art. We are now considered American artists. This is the man who paved the way."
Hale Woodruff spent the last 20 years of his teaching career at New York University. He died in 1980. By then he was recognized by his peers in the art world. But he had a warning for his great nephew.
"I can remember as a young man sitting at his feet," Hughes says. "He would draw something, and my sister and I would be there drawing. He would tell us, 'Yeah, you guys have talent but it’s not going to do you any good.' He said, 'My paintings aren’t going to make any matter. The only thing is that they'll be worth something to you guys.' He drilled that into my mom’s head. He said, 'Yeah obviously they’re really talented artists in their own right, but send ‘em to law school. Let them be like their dad.'"
Kansas City's two museum shows prove Hale Woodruff wrong. His paintings mattered.
Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College, through Jan. 10, 2016, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111, 816-751-1278.
All Hail to Hale: Homecoming — The Hale Woodruff Family Collection, through Feb. 20, 2016, at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 East 18th Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108, 816-474-8463.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter at @cjjanovy.