written by Roger Riddle; photos courtesy of Woodrow Nash
As sculptor Woodrow Nash came of age in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and on into the ‘70s, he says Akron lacked an arts scene of any kind. So much so that he didn’t have anyone to look to or to mentor him. He was already artistically inclined and loved to draw and paint. It came naturally and he embraced it.
Nash started high school attending Buchtel, which was predominantly white at the time. Later he moved from Buchtel to South High School, where for the first time he found himself at a predominantly black school. He remembers a moment when he was drawing and a classmate walked up to him and asked, “Why you always draw white people?”
Today Nash defines his style as “African-Nouveau,” a combination of 15th century Benin from the Southwest of Africa, with 18th century Art Nouveau of Europe. The absence of eyes to draw the viewer into the piece – taken from the Benin style – is a mainstay of Nash’s work. His pieces also feature long lines that suggest a fluidity and movement, making each piece seem as if they are about to come alive. This is an element he found in Art Nouveau style.
However, his African-Nouveau style was not the beginning of his professional career. It developed after a stint in New York during the ‘70s when the Madison Avenue ad agencies were still going strong and Nash was interested in making commercial art.
“If you wanted to be in commercial art, you went to New York,” Nash explains.
While in New York, Nash attended the Pell School of Art, a school specializing in commercial art. After receiving an associate art degree, he began to work as a freelance artist, and eventually began to design album covers for the Music Minus One and Inner City Jazz labels – two labels owned by Irv Kratka.
The ‘70s were a great time for jazz in New York. The fusion movement, as well as a classic revival period, was going strong, and Kratka began releasing albums from artists such as Jeff Lorber Fusion, Ornette Cobb, Cat Anderson and Lionel Hampton, to name a few. During that time period, Nash created roughly 40 album covers for them.
It was a good time to live in New York. Nash spent some of his free time listening to jazz in clubs like the famed Village Gate, and the Cellar on the upper west side. Sometimes he even stopped in dance clubs like Leviticus and Justine’s. However, he feels that he couldn’t live there now – even though he is heading there in a week for a short visit.
“But to live there? Now I need a house and a backyard, so I can cookout,” he states.
Nash made the decision to come back to Akron so that he could be with his family. Now he has those comforts right here in his hometown.
“I had two children from a previous marriage,” he says. “They were going through some changes, and I felt that it would be best to give up my bachelor, wild life – which I was really enjoying at that time – and come back and do the fatherly thing.”
Along with being close to his family, the cost of living here has allowed him to open his own studio and gallery on Copley Road. His work has now gained so much recognition that art lovers and galleries nationwide come to him. He is well aware that this lifestyle is the exception to the rule here in Akron when it comes to other artists.
Though Akron’s art scene has grown since Nash’s schoolboy days, you get the sense that it has not grown to where he would like to see it. “It’s not because there’s not talent here,” Nash says.
He sees Akron’s established artists as working more independently of each other and outside of what is going on at the Akron Art Museum. He also thinks a lot of Akron’s young artists have what it takes to be successful, they just don’t know how to make that talent work for them – a skill he learned during his days as a commercial artist in New York.
“It’s one thing to have a product, but it’s another thing to take that product to market where people actually want to purchase it,” Nash says. “And that’s what I learned in the advertising industry.”
Because the business side of art has not been nurtured in Akron’s artists, he sees a lot of talented artists go in other directions out of fear of living the “starving artist” stereotype.
Along with learning skills to market themselves, Nash offers a bit of advice for up and coming artists that he followed himself: “I would tell them to leave Akron.”
He goes on to clarify, “If you are going to be making statements – about who you are, what you feel about this, what you feel about that – you have to experience something.” Nash feels these experiences might be difficult to find when you are limited to Akron.
In Nash’s case, the journey from Akron to New York and back is reflected in his plainspoken confidence and his stunning, larger than life sculptures. There is no question that an artist from Akron can make it on a grand stage. Nash is living proof.
Roger Riddle is a DJ and the Chief Curator for Unbox Akron. You can contact him at roger.riddle @ gmail.com.