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Sharing WNC Black History Through Art During COVID-19

Courtesy of Ann Miller Woodford
Ann Miller Woodford's "Self Portrait As An Artist" will be featured in the WCU Mountain Heritage Center virtual exhibit.

  Here’s part one of BPR’s features on Ann Miller Woodford.

Earlier this week, we profiled local historian Ann Miller Woodford, who published “When All God’s Children Get Together.”  It’s about the history of the Black communities of Western North Carolina.

Woodford is also a prolific artist.  Because of COVID-19, a local museum is transforming her newest art exhibit into a virtual event. Here’s the story:

The Cherokee County native is well-known for her work preserving Western North Carolina’s Black history.  For as long as she can remember, Ann Miller Woodford has also been an artist.

“My favorite teacher was Miss Ida Mae Logan, really cared about me as an artist. At her own expense, she sent my artwork away for contests. I would win want blue ribbons and gold keys from the Scholastic art awards. All of these things supported me,” said Woodford.

Woodford remembers attending a one-room segregated schoolhouse in Andrews until she went on to high school in Asheville in 1961. She says that much her instruction came from watching the television program “Learn to Draw” with John Nagy.

“I would get up every Saturday morning and draw with John Nagy on our little black and white television. The life we could have called it a rough life. It could have been a terrible life, but it wasn't,” said Woodford. 

“My dad made sure that we had a good warm house in the winter and my mother kept the house and cooked for us in such a wonderful way and taught us how to cook. And we never had to babysit our little sister. We were just kids having a good time in life, and that was a wonderful thing to live that way,” said Woodford.

Woodford spent much of her life running businesses outside of North Carolina such as a Black greeting card company and producing playing cards with Black art. 

When she moved back to Cherokee County, she didn’t paint as much because of her role with One Dozen Who Care, a women-led community development organization.  There was also writing her book “When All God’s Children Get Together.”

“So I even set aside my artwork because I was doing community development at the time. So that for a period of time, so that I could write this book and I didn't do as much artwork as I usually had over the years,” said Woodford.

Woodford is doing both now with a project that is both social justice and art.  Two billboards in Cherokee County, funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will feature one of her paintings with the words “SEE ME” written across.

“People will say sometimes, ‘I don't see color.’ And in my way, I speak to them. I do it as lovingly as I can because I know they don't mean anything negative by that. I say, ‘If you don't see color, you don't see me,’” said Woodford.

In Jackson County, Woodford’s newest art exhibit has been changed by the pandemic.

“I was devastated when we got the word that both university museums would be closed to the public.”  

That’s Pam Meister, director of Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University. Meister worked on Woodford’s “When All God’s Children Get Together” exhibit with her in 2017 and since then she has been working to feature her artwork.

The Mountain Heritage Center plans to launch a virtual exhibit of four videos featuring Woodford’s work on YouTube. These videos will chronicle Woodford’s life through her artwork. The exhibit is titled, "The Artist As Storyteller." 

Meister explains that there are pieces featuring her father and grandfather. The videos will explore the stories behind these images. 

“Ann is one of those people that I think some people really do know her as the community development person and other people know her as the artist, but, you know, I'm not sure how many people know about all of various parts of her life. And it's just so fascinating that that's what she does, but the same intention drives it all,” said Meister.

Sara Stanly is a junior communications major at Western Carolina. She’s working on the virtual event project with Pam Meister. She’s a North Carolina native from Hamptonville near Winston-Salem.

“So when I first did work for Pam, I, I hadn't taken a history class in years. I have never been a history person. I, you know, I hate to say it. I fall asleep in classes like that, but Pam inspired me,” said Stanley, who is team coordinator for the project.

Now Stanley says she sees giving contexts to these works of art as important for understanding Woodford’s message.

“I want more people that are my age to look at this stuff that might have never set foot in the mountain heritage center. Especially during Black History month and such controversial times and political unrest -  I think it's more important than ever to tell the smaller community stories that can reach as many people as possible,” said Stanley

For Woodford, her art has always been about sharing a message of racial equality and having hard conversations.

“I believe it softens the pain sometimes my artwork, kind of softens my conversations with people. When I look into the eyes of some people who ask me questions, they show a bit of discomfort and sometimes fear because they don't know how I'm going to react,” said Woodford. “But if they're looking at one of my paintings and they want to know why I painted it, what is your reason behind that? It's easy for me to bring my African-American heritage and history into the story. When I'm painting. That's the most important thing right now for my artwork and what, the reason that I do my artwork along with the history and the heritage of my people.”

The Mountain Heritage Center exhibit is launching soon. More information can be found online.

This month, Woodford is also hosting a Racial Justice book club with AARP.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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