A pioneer for women in monumental sculpture, her work still adorns Auburn’s campus to this day.
By Marilyn Laufer, Director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art
During our first meeting with Jean Woodham in 2010 at her studio and home in Connecticut in preparation for this exhibition, I commented that she was a true pioneer in that she was among only a handful of women sculptors in mid-20th century who worked in large scale. I cited both Louise Nevelson and Dorothy Dehner as being in that same league since I knew that they had been her friends. Woodham’s response was to point out that my comparison wasn’t entirely accurate since she had always fabricated her own pieces while the artists I mentioned had not.
Later I came across a quote in an article on artists and their studios in the magazine Connecticut where Jean had noted to the interviewer, “It’s very unusual for any sculptor––particularly a woman––to work on this scale and not turn a model over to a fabricator.” She concluded, “I simply tackled something I didn’t know was not being done!”
That in many ways sums up Jean Woodham’s exceptional career as an artist. She never considered that there was anything unusual in strapping herself into what is called a bosun’s chair to be raised almost forty feet into the air while wearing a TIG welder’s helmet. She was just doing what needed to be done in order to accomplish her artistic vision.
Suspended by a system of pulleys in her studio, she cut, hammered, and welded the bronze, brass, steel, and copper metals into singular works of abstract art. Fearless and passionate, Ms. Woodham told another writer, “The work has made me glad I’m alive almost every day of my life.”
Born in 1925 in Alabama to parents who were teachers, Woodham recalls a strong thread of artistic creativity running deep through her family which included her mother‘s paintings, her grandmother‘s embroidered quilts, and her great grandmother’s suspended abstract assemblages.
She became certain of her career path in first grade when her teacher remarked on the quality of her art project in clay, and encouraged her young student to become a sculptor.
In 1943 Woodham graduated from high school and entered Auburn University, then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API).
While a student she exhibited work at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, received the Burton Prize for highest scholastic achievement by an art major, and served as the first female editor of the API yearbook. She earned her degree in three years and wasted no time to follow her dream of becoming a sculptor. Her father put her on a train to New York City in July of 1946.
In New York, Woodham soon took a work-study position at the Clay Club, an open studio on West Eighth Street that held classes and exhibitions. In exchange for her duties, she was paid a small stipend, given a place to sleep, and provided free tuition. At first, she sculpted in clay, plaster, stone, wax, and wood as exemplified by Bird of Prey (n.d.), and Spring Form (1949). But after seeing the sculptures of David Smith, Jean decided that welding was the expressive process that best fit her aesthetic needs.
Within a short few years, she would be included in group exhibitions with Smith, Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Theodore Roszak, Richard Lippold, Jose de Rivera, and Louis Nevelson. The piece Paolo and Francesca (1949) is an early example of her welded work. It is during this time that Jean married an advertising artist and illustrator who had also attended Auburn University and had moved to New York City to work. They began a family and while her daughters were small, Woodham was not able to do much welding. Still, her reputation as a sculptor resulted in her being nominated for membership in the Sculptors Guild by her friend Louis Nevelson.
The family moved to Connecticut in 1955 where she has resided ever since. Through the 1950s and 60s, Woodham’s work received numerous awards and was included in many prestigious exhibitions in both South America and the United States, including the 1964 World’s Fair. However, in the late 1960s with her marriage ending, she turned to teaching as well as focusing on commissions to support her daughters. In the early 1970s, she was invited to return to Auburn as a visiting professor, where she served on the university faculty. However, her tenure there was short-lived as important commission opportunities took Woodham back to Connecticut where she was able to purchase a home and convert the garage into her extraordinary studio in Westport.
Above: Reunion, welded bronze (1963)
In the 1980s, Woodham was able to make her first trips to Europe. It was also at this time that she met and married Harold Friedman, a Clio award-winning producer of television commercials. Jean Woodham’s career flourished in the 1980s and 90s with strong exhibitions and impressive commissions. In 1990, she was elected the president of the Sculptors Guild and was included in the exhibition The Coming of Age of American Sculpture: The First Decades of the Sculptors Guild 1930s–1950s held at the museum at Hofstra University. She was also given a 50-year retrospective at the Foy Union Gallery at Auburn University under the auspices of the Franklin Lectures in Science and Humanities, in 1996.
Sadly her husband died after a hard fought illness in 1995. Linda Dente, who served as the Art in Public Spaces manager for the Connecticut State Commission on the Arts for 27 years, noted of Jean Woodham’s sculpture, “Her acute understanding of all the variables of which make up Public Sculpture—space, volume, light, texture, and place along with her mastery of materials––puts her work among the very best large-scale sculpture being done today.”
Indeed her large-scale works are remarkable and create a complementary dialogue with the architectural elements they often share. But it is also in her smaller work as evidenced in this exhibition that we can readily consider those elements that are so essential to her perceptive creations.
Themes such as rivers, forests, and birds in flight suggest an awareness of the ebb and flow or the passages of the natural world. There are also references to guardians (Argus) and gateways (Western Tori I) that reflect safe passages of another kind.
Ms. Jean Woodham has traveled the course of her creative career overcoming obstacles and embracing those triumphs en route and we her audience are the beneficiaries of both her historically significant achievements and her noteworthy artistic realizations.