Deeply attached to his Southern heritage, Hayward Louis Oubre Jr. relied on childhood memories to create paintings and prints portraying African American life in his hometown of New Orleans. However, he is best remembered today for works that transcend any regionalist influences: airy wire sculptures that are celebrated for their resilience, strength, balance, and engineering mastery.

Born to a family of African and French descent, Oubre’s youthful artistic talent was encouraged in the New Orleans parochial schools he attended. Following high school, he enrolled at Dillard University, where he was a standout member of the football and track teams, an illustrator for the college newspaper, and the institution’s first art major. Upon his graduation in 1939, Oubre continued his studies at Atlanta University, thriving under the tutelage of painter and muralist Hale Woodruff and sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, who encouraged Oubre to submit his work to the annual Atlanta University exhibitions. In 1941, Oubre was assigned to help with a special art initiative at Tuskegee Institute, where he met George Washington Carver, an admirer of the fledgling artist’s work.

Oubre temporarily relinquished his artistic pursuits later in 1941 when he was drafted into military service. Serving with the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, Oubre joined 3,700 African American soldiers charged with building a 1500-mile military supply route—now known as the Alcan Highway—that connected Alaska to the continental United States. These soldiers labored under brutal conditions to complete the assignment in eight months.

Thanks to the GI Bill, Oubre was able to continue his education in art at the University of Iowa, earning his master’s degree from the University of Iowa. He then launched an extended career as an art educator at a series of historically black colleges and universities: Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (1948‒1949); Alabama State College (1949‒1965); and, finally, at Winston-Salem State University (1965‒1981), where he initiated the studio art program. Over three decades, Oubre mentored countless aspiring African American artists and embraced an “open studio concept” which allowed pupils to advance at their own pace. In an effort to provide his painting students with the proper learning material, Oubre conceived and copyrighted “a concise study of color mixing and color relationships” using a color wheel that updated and expanded the 1810 color triangle developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Oubre's two-dimensional works feature simplified, sometimes abstracted, forms that reflect the artist’s familiarity with Picasso’s Analytic and Synthetic Cubism. While he had previously employed clay and wood to create closed-form sculptures, it was during his tenure at Alabama State College in the 1950s that Oubre began fabricating his acclaimed wire sculptures. As he slowly and delicately shaped ordinary wire clothes hangers with hand pliers, the artist confronted structural challenges that demanded a considerable amount of strength and, at times, physical pain, to overcome. Nicknamed by his students as the “master of torque,” Oubre detailed his method in his 1960 publication, The Art of Wire Sculpture. One reviewer writing of Oubre’s sculptures opined that “light and air are as critical to the work as the metal that gives them definition.”

Although Oubre’s work was not widely exhibited during his lifetime, his oeuvre has attracted increased curatorial attention and examples of his work are represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Mint Museum of Art, and the University of Delaware. In 1993, the Pentagon honored Oubre and other surviving soldiers from the Alcan Highway battalion for their service.