Woodrow Nash: ‘Art is the sum total of my life’s experiences’

Reporting, writing and photos by Noor Hindi

Woodrow Nash doesn’t just make art: He creates a universe of “regalness” for Black people. 

In an inconspicuous studio off Copley Road in Akron, hundreds of his sculptures, which embody strength and beauty with their upright postures and the “stoic, quiet look of them,” are born. 

In the studio is where Nash comes alive — hands dusted with clay, paint splattered on his clothes, listening to jazz, old school R&B and country, his favorite genre. Though the 72-year-old is often by himself while he works, he’s rarely alone. Countless sculptures surround him, each staring in a different direction.

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“It’s a way of life, man,” he says. “It’s who I am. And I don’t look at it as work because I enjoy it.”

Nash never has a plan. He chooses colors based on “whatever comes to me, whatever I feel like, whatever I think is going to work.” He never sketches. He moves effortlessly from sculpture to sculpture, making it look easy, because to him, it is. 

“This is the original form of communication,” he says. “Artists speak to anyone, everyone.” 

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Today, Nash is a nationally renowned artist known for his African-Nouveau style. His sculptures feel alarmingly real. They’re painted with bright, vibrant colors and are textured with soft patterns. Their beauty is striking, pulling viewers in. Their hollow eyes are moving and haunting. His pieces cost thousands of dollars and are featured all over the country. Most recently, Nash’s artwork was featured in Beyoncé’s newest visual album, Black is King. 

Though Nash always knew he wanted to be an artist, and never doubted his abilities, it took him until he was 40 years old to dedicate his full self to his artistry. 

“You’re taught art is an unrealistic and unattainable goal,” he says. “’You’re going to starve to death! Where you gonna work?’ I just believed in myself. And people would tell me, ‘Hey, they’re hiring at Chrysler. Why don’t you get a job?’ I was ridiculed for a while.’”

While Nash was growing up, Akron was highly segregated. Copley Road was the “dividing line,” he says, “Black folks on this side, white folks on that side.” While Buchtel was structurally integrated, “the whites did their thing and the Blacks did their thing.” 

After graduating from Buchtel High School [Fact check], Nash served in the Vietnam War, an experience he describes as “sad.” Nash says he “lost it” for about five years. 

“When you’re faced with death and you make decisions daily to survive, you find out who you are. You find out you might have courage or you don’t have courage. I found out I was angry because I found myself at 21 fighting to stop Communist aggression and I was a second-class citizen over here in America fighting for someone else’s freedom.”

Nash eventually received an associate’s degree in commercial art from Pels School of Art in New York City. For a long time, Nash worked in advertising, but none of the jobs ever fit, and none of it made him happy. What’s worse is he was constantly finding himself passed up for opportunities. 

“I was always the only Black guy in the department or the only Black guy in the company,” he says, exasperated. “And I found I was always trying to prove myself. I’d never really won my position. And I was always second-guessed.” 

Eventually, Nash left advertising to pursue his own work full-time. The only thing he regrets, he says, is waiting until he was 40. 

Today, you can find Nash in his studio, creating entire worlds with his bare hands, humming along to his favorite music or maybe even playing his djembe drums. 

“It’s been good,” he smiles. “And it’s because I had the courage to step out on my own. Always had it.”

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Equity and Inclusion Reporter. Email her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.