Richard Woodward, curator of African art, describes the artistic legacy of Murry N. DePillars

In 1975, Richard Woodward arrived at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where he soon began building the museum’s African Art collection. At the same time, Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D., was assistant dean of VCUarts and just one year away from stepping into the role of dean.

DePillars and Woodward held intersecting positions in the city’s arts community. They had the opportunity to work together in the 1980s when both served on a multicultural advisory committee at the VMFA. Along with other community members, Woodward and DePillars sought to share their perspectives about the needs and interests of the wider community and advise the museum’s director on how to reach a broader public through meaningful exhibitions and programs.

For years after, DePillars and Woodward continued to work for two of Richmond’s major arts institutions, each influencing the city’s arts culture in their own ways while sharing a common goal of representing Africa through its art and cultural heritage. Woodward also studied DePillars’ work and curated a retrospective exhibition at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center in 2017.

This fall, Woodward once again had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of DePillars’ work—this time coinciding with the commemoration of the Murry N. DePillars Building. Dr. Murry N DePillars: The Dean and More was installed in the newly minted fine arts building in September, which was funded in part by the VCU Foundation. The exhibition showed the major themes present in DePillars’ work throughout his 40-year career as an artist; his influence on VCUarts and the Richmond arts community; and his advocacy for public support of the arts.

Here, Woodward reflects on the significance and symbolism of DePillars’ art and curating multiple exhibitions of his work.

What makes Murry DePillars’ work significant?

Murry possessed great gifts as an artist, but he was also a conscientious historian and his knowledge of African art and history was comprehensive. Through the magic of his paintings, he found ways to weave together African cultural history —from ancient cave paintings, to more recent elements such as African American quilts and jazz music —in compositions that unify this extraordinary trajectory.

As a painter, Murry was a very accomplished composer, carefully thinking through and planning each work. He was meticulous in organizing and constructing each painting and in the way he introduced African and African American symbols, sometimes overlaying them to create a more profound message. For instance, he might employ a quilt symbol for a crossroad, suggesting a key decision in life. [Then he would] overlay that with an African Adinkra symbol of a very hard nut, thereby making a statement that firmness and fortitude are required at the point of decision and after.

In this way, messages embedded in his paintings merge African and African American vocabularies in a continuum. I don’t know any other artist who has united them in the same way that Murry has. I think his work stands out distinctly in this regard.

Can you talk about one of the paintings in the DePillars Building exhibition and how it is representative of his work?

The painting representing Wynton Marsalis is a good example. The musician is depicted in a complex spatial envelope. The brightly colored patterning is like a visual lattice or architecture within which there are ghosted images. In the upper right, you’ll see a sax player. On the left side, you’ll see a drummer behind that lattice. And tying prehistory with today, between the sax player and the drummer, is a winding serpent that derives from representations in African cave paintings that Murry had studied.

Murry N. DePillars (1938 – 2008, US)
Wynton, 1999
From the Music Series
Acrylic on canvas
© The Estate of Murry N. DePillars
Courtesy Mary L. DePillars
Photo by Terry Brown

Also ghosted is a bedu mask. It’s right in the center, and it has a circular top with two posts going down to a triangular base. A bedu mask is from West Africa. Among other things, it is a symbol for a successful harvest and it expresses thank to the ancestors. It is a type of mask Murry employed often in his paintings.

Within the architecture of pattern, which I think might be called a spirit envelope and is surrounded by the ghosted references, Wynton appears. This is an incredibly complex painting. I think Murry used the term construction in reference to quilts—that African American quilters constructed their quilts. His paintings are definitely constructed, with living people and with the history of African art and symbols. They’re incredibly complex works and very absorbing. Every time I look at [Wynton], I see something new. This is among the paintings that I consider to be his masterpieces.

Can you talk about the exhibition you curated for the Black History Museum?

I curated that exhibition with my VMFA colleague, Ashley Duhrkoop and worked closely with Mary DePillars, who generously shared many insights. The exhibition included 40 works, which made it possible to show the different phases of Murry’s career in greater depth. There were several of his early drawings, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Remus, and others from the late-’60s and early ’70s. And the Quilt Series, the Freedom Series, the Music Series and paintings on the theme of Candace were represented with multiple works.

We were able to include Murry’s wonderful art briefcase in the Black History Museum show. He was on the move as dean, and although he had precious little time to paint, he was constantly thinking and developing compositions. For his frequent travels, he outfitted a small suitcase with little canvases, a selection of paints and brushes and things like that. If he had time waiting for a plane or in his hotel, he would work on his compositions. We included seven paintings from what is called the Briefcase Series, and we were able to display the very briefcase, which still retains the paints, brushes and a few partially finished canvases. These works-in-process provided an opportunity to see how he developed a painting: drawing the lines, then filling in the colors and building the composition in an orderly sequence.

Why is it important for VCU to recognize Dr. DePillars by naming the fine arts building in his honor?

When I came to Richmond, you couldn’t help but be aware of the important art department at VCU. But 45 years later, VCU now leads with the School of the Arts as part of its identity. The years while Murry was dean saw tremendous growth of the school, expanding in scope and size, and making strides in becoming the nationally leading school that it is today. His leadership delivered it to the stature of one of VCU’s leading schools. I think naming the building speaks volumes for recognizing the transformative impact of Dean DePillars and for the university’s commitment to its institutional memory. Symbolically, it is also significant to recognize here in the former capital of the Confederacy, the leadership and accomplishment of one of the first African American deans of a major school of the arts.

Lead Image: From the exhibition Dr. Murry N. DePillars: The Dean and More. Photo by Terry Brown. Thank you to the VCU Foundation for their generous support of this exhibition.