R.O. Woody Interview by Pamela Beck

When you look at an object you don’t just take a split second snapshot image of what you are seeing, you see the subject and everything that surrounds it. There is the changing light, the movement, the relationship to the surrounding elements, the changing color relationships, the atmosphere, even the smell of it all. You have a very complex, encompassing impression of what you are seeing.

ARTdart: There are as many ways to think about art as there are to create it. Join Pamela Beck in her column, ARTdart, as she explores and considers the different perspectives that define the art world.

Mr. Woody received his BA at University of Miami and MFA at Mexico City College. He has been a consultant and technical advisor to Binney and Smith, Inc. (Liquitex), Grumbacher, Inc., and LeFranc and Bourgeois, Inc. He has lectured on materials and color theory at over 450 colleges, universities and art schools throughout the United States, Canada and Europe including the Alberta College of Art, Boston University, University of California/Berkley, Carnegie Institution, Corcoran School of Art, New York University, Ringling School of Art and Design, Yale University, etc.

Mr. Woody has served as Visiting Professor of Art, Illinois State University, Normal, IL and Visiting Professor of Art, St. Cloud State College, St. Cloud, MN. He has authored two books: “Painting With Synthetic Media,” Van Nostrand Reinhold and “Polymer Painting and Related Techniques,” Van Nostrand Reinhold. He is represented by the Dabbert Gallery, Sarasota.

WIMS - TORN COOL TO WARM   110" X 90"   acrylic on torn 5 ply drawing board on free formed wood support
WIMS – TORN COOL TO WARM 110″ X 90″ acrylic on torn 5 ply drawing board on free formed wood support

PB: Your work spans from 1955 to now and changes considerably. What was behind your thinking/ feeling as you changed from your earlier techniques to your current ones?

ROW: I started as a realist — a super realist. At first it was gratifying. But after doing this for a few years, not only did it become technically boring, I realized that people viewing my work were not getting what I wanted them to feel—except on a shallow, superficial level. I was trying to paint more than a face or a tree. I was trying to get to the essence of the subject.

When you look at an object you don’t just take a split second snapshot image of what you are seeing, you see the subject and everything that surrounds it. There is the changing light, the movement, the relationship to the surrounding elements, the changing color relationships, the atmosphere, even the smell of it all. You have a very complex, encompassing impression of what you are seeing.

That’s what I wanted to convey. And the viewers were counting details, counting the leaves, estimating how long it took to complete the painting. So I decided to try and convey the other elements, which led me more and more to abstract the subject. It also led to fewer sales. But at least I had caused the viewer to respond more to the overall concept –even if they did not like it and had to think and contribute something of themselves to the experience. And still today I start quite realistically and then abstract the subject to get the total concept.

WIMS - DANCE PARTNER   88" X 90"  acrylic on torn canvas with faux fur on free formed wood support
WIMS – DANCE PARTNER 88″ X 90″ acrylic on torn canvas with faux fur on free formed wood support

PB: I see you have several paintings that are totally black. Considering most of your work has extensive, saturated color, what are those black ones about? And please talk about your double-sided paintings.

ROW: Initially this started as an exercise. I taught and lectured on color theory. And at one point I realized that when I came upon a problem in a painting I knew I could easily fake my way out of it with color manipulation. So I decided to limit myself to black on black so I could not use color as a crutch.

A short time after I started this, there came many “black” events, outside of, as well as in, my life. There was the shooting of Martin Luther King, John and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the prolonged dissolution of a twenty-year marriage. I continued this, not as an exercise, but as a valid statement of expression. And I cut holes in the canvas projected sculptural images from the canvas, stuffed and abraded the canvas.

Then a few years later I was worn out, drained, and decided there were two sides to this. At that point I literally made two sides to the painting. I double stretched the canvas, hung if from the ceiling and painted both sides, still cutting holes and stuffing it. I was dealing with the yin/yang concept of opposites, including the concept that within the opposite is a piece of the opposite.

The other side of the black paintings became a strong color statement — with a piece of black in it. Eventually the double-sided paintings became a riot of color and life. But they still contained a bit of the opposite, which, I found, became something different when viewed, or experienced, from the other side. This expressed through design and color interaction –but no less true in philosophical concept.

I was living in New York’s SoHo at that time and Pop Art was what was selling. These large, abstract, conceptual paintings didn’t have a chance. Besides, they took up actual space; hard to ask that in a home.

However I lived in a 3,600 square foot loft at the time, with 14 foot ceilings, and they made great room dividers. I still work on double-sided paintings, but mainly have gone back to wall hanging works. (Although some of the double sided work can be hung on the wall and flipped.) I work in several series concepts: music, especially jazz; dance and the female nude: children on swings and jumping rope, etc.; the Everglades (with both its beauty and uneasy edge), birds.

PB: What were your days in New York like? You lived/worked there during a particularly rich time for artists.

ROW: I loved living in New York! I met many artists such as Bill and Elaine deKooning, James Brooks, Adolph Gottlieb, Milton Resnik, Idelle Weber, Nicholas Krushenick, Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. I was able to use most of these artists in my books on materials. They were very gracious and giving people.

I really miss all the museums and galleries and good music and food. And the activity and stimulation. I moved into SoHo at the very beginning of its development as an art center. My loft was formerly a manufacturing loft for tennis wear. They left the cutting tables, which were great drawing and working spaces. There were three galleries, several bars, a great bread company and a restaurant call Food. Later Dean and Deluca moved in just around the corner. But, as I mentioned, I was working against the art wave of the time, which I have seemed to do most of my life.

YELLOW BACKED CROW   24" X 30"   acrylic on canvas
YELLOW BACKED CROW 24″ X 30″ acrylic on canvas

PB: I’ve never seen an artist with so many brushes. Can you tell us about this? Do you use many of them or which in particular?

ROW: You probably have never seen an artist with as much paint as well. When I was studying for my MFA in Mexico I started to paint with automotive lacquer because many of the Mexican muralists, such as Siqueiros, used it as a medium at the time. However, I did not realize how toxic it was. After using lacquer in a small, enclosed studio for the better part of a year (and becoming a very happy artist) I became quite ill and was diagnosed as having leukemia and given about three months to live.

Luckily, a French doctor, who worked with industrial product workers, stepped in and diagnosed me with chemical poisoning. I was treated and recovered, but as a result I did my Master’s thesis on paints — primarily synthetic paints. This later was published as one of the first books on synthetic media. As a result, much to my surprise, I became an expert.

Art supply companies ask me to work with them establishing properties and color positions for the, then, very new acrylics. I was supplied with as much paint as I asked for to do testing and for my own use. (Fantastic, as I was painting large, very heavily impastoed paintings at the time.)

Later on I was also asked to develop brush lines. Especially blends of synthetic and natural hair. All the brushes and paint you saw was the result of years of consultant work and testing of materials.

These companies also hired me to visit colleges and universities and lecture on materials, techniques and color theory. I have lectured at over 450 colleges, art schools and universities all over the United States and Europe.

And yes, I use almost all the brushes depending on the work. I designed brushes for a particular use and each has its place. The same is true of the paints, their working properties and color positions.

PB: You worked with several companies — Liquitex, Grumbacher, LeFranc and Bourgeois — and have great knowledge about materials and color theory. Does your professional knowledge about paint inhibit or help your creative use of it?

ROW: The more you know about materials, techniques and color theory the freer you are to create. You don’t have to stop and think about how to do something; you concentrate on the creativity, not the process.

RED BACKED CROW   24" X 30"   acrylic on canvas
RED BACKED CROW 24″ X 30″ acrylic on canvas

PB: You display your collections of, Inuit art, African art, Pre Colombian Art, Borucan masks and Dominican Republic folk art all over your home. Please describe what draws you to these in particular and if they influence your art. In particular, why are you so drawn to masks?

ROW: We all wear a mask. I am very interested in why. What does it symbolize? What is its purpose? The Inuit works I have are mostly of the raven. I have an affinity with the image as well as the legends surrounding this figure. The raven wears a mask, or rather, has the ability to change into other forms.

I was very influenced by Pre Colombian art in my early work, and still am to a certain extent. I had visual interests in the Aztec masks and especially the Chacmool figure. Others, such as Henry Moore, were similarly influenced. The Chacmool figure has a gory past as an alter figure that holds on its belly a bowl to receive the beating heart cut out of a sacrificial victim, but this figure also is a study in tense visual movement.

In the Mayan culture the sacrifice was an act of rejuvenation, insurance for fertility and continuance of humanity. An artist is always influenced by other artists and concepts, not to imitate, but to understand and expand visually (i.e.: Picasso, etc., and African masks). Henry Moore took the Chacmool figure, a man, and turned it into a woman, in the same contorted position, possibly to emphasize the concept of birth and fertility.

MIDNIGHT LIGHT - MYAKKA   22" X 30"   acrylic on canvas
MIDNIGHT LIGHT – MYAKKA 22″ X 30″ acrylic on canvas

PB: You have lived here twenty years. How does this lifestyle impact your work?

ROW: I visited Florida when I was twelve years old and said: “This is where I will live.” I have always loved the light, the flora and the water here. I received a degree from The University of Miami and worked in South Florida. Then went on to Mexico, New Jersey and New York. My life long friends lived here. So when SoHo became a very expensive zoo, I returned.

Unfortunately I have out lived all my life long friends. The first ten years after my return to Florida I still worked as an artist consultant and traveled almost half of the time. My painting centered on the themes established in New York, with some forays into more water-centered paintings.

When I finally stopped consultant work I centered more on Florida elements. One in particular set me off into a new theme: the Everglades. I took several of the “swamp walks” offered by the photographer Clyde Butcher during Labor Day each year, as well as spending weeks in the Everglades National Park. The “swamp walks” changed my visual perspective as sometimes you wade in water up to your chest. As well as being in close proximity to snakes and alligators and literally being stuck in the mud of the swamp. I wanted to express that point of view.

But it is the light and feeling of Florida that gives me great joy.

PB: What are your painting rituals to get going?

ROW: No set rituals. I go the studio and clean up the place. Or I sit outside the studio and listen to the water in the Koi pond and the wind in the trees. Or I read or listen to music. Or I do random sketches or color studies. But much of the time I look at photographs. I take hundreds and hundreds of photographs. I used to sketch extensively but now I use photos — much of them timed photos and blurred or out of focus (on purpose) photos.

BLUES DANCE   42" X 72"   acrylic on canvas
BLUES DANCE 42″ X 72″ acrylic on canvas

PB: Since music and dance are subjects of yours, what are your favorite types of music and dance?

ROW: Classical Jazz is my first choice, with Classical music a very close second. For contemplation: something like Bill Evans or solo Bach guitar by Segovia or John Williams. For mood: something like Duke Ellington’s “Anatomy of a Murder” or Vivaldi or Phillip Glass. I have music playing all the time I am painting.

I have two very good friends, C.J. and Marilynn Shelley. Both are accomplished drummers and Marilynn is a belly dancer. I have used them as subjects of my work. And I have painted drums for them. I use the dancers at the drum circle as subjects.

And I have used ballet dancers, starting with my children in ballet class as well as professional dancers. I very much like the combination of drums, dance and didgeridoo and try to capture that visually. It’s all as varied as my painting.

PB: What are the changes in the visual arts that you’ve seen over the twenty years you’ve lived here?

ROW: As stated, when I first moved here, I traveled, lecturing at least half of my time. I tried to integrate into the Sarasota art society, but it was not easy. Most galleries had a full “stable” and I was told that most collectors and buyers did not want “local” artists. The collectors went to New York or Palm Beach or galleries that handled these artists.

I finally joined a gallery that succumbed to the recession a year later, as did other galleries at the time. Sarasota was, and is, a center for the arts. But the visual arts were not as supported, in my opinion, twenty years ago. This is amazing, considering the history of Sarasota and all of the very prominent artists that worked and prospered here thirty to forty years ago. The attitude here, as well as in other areas, had changed from open, cooperative and embracing, to one of “self protection”. But maybe this is just a personal reaction as an artist, not an objective observer.

Just like the flow of the arts overall, Sarasota visual arts continue to meld and change. In the past few years the arts scene has changed radically and is much more active and motivated by younger artists and galleries focusing on their work. The Two Columns Gallery, the Willis Smith Galleries and the Crossley Gallery, all at the Ringling School of Art and Design, support and encourage young artists. In the Rosemarie District several galleries exhibit emerging artists. But the most active is the Clothesline Gallery with the creative force of its staff, and especially that of the artist and manager, Van Jazmin. Clothesline was voted Best Gallery of 2013 by Sarasota Magazine. The more traditional galleries also seem more positive and active and in some cases have expanded.

PB: Do you feel like a different person in your home than in your studio?

ROW: Absolutely. The short walk through trees and vine covered arbor past the pond to the studio creates a different mind set. My home is full of other people’s work, collections, as well as my work and my office. The studio, built to the dimensions of the workspace of my SoHo loft, is a place of creativity and reflection–and a place full of materials with which to work.

Pamela Beck
Pamela Beck
Pamela co-owned Pannonia Galleries in NYC. There she was also an art appraiser, private art dealer, art fair exhibitor and catalogued paintings at Sotheby’s. Perhaps it’s not surprising that she is also a psychotherapist. She has a keen interest in the arts and supporting Sarasota’s future as a lively, diverse and forward thinking city for young and old.

Pamela is a member of The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, Curatorial & Acquisitions Committee; Institute for the Ages, Volunteer

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