John Wood

Eagle Pelts – Ithaca, 1984. by John Wood. Silver print with toning. 16 x 20. Copyright by John Wood.

In an act of great generosity, John Wood’s daughter, Carol Wood, contacted us by e-mail in 2022 and offered to give us our choice of any one of John’s photographic prints – apparently simply because we had championed John’s work when he was still alive. As we had sent everything by John that we had previously owned (Including another copy of this print.) to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin as part of the “Creative Project” in 2018, this allowed us to replace the print which we had loved. As well as being a beautiful photograph, it was also the image for the first page of the sixteen page original artist’s signature that John, like the other three artist’s in the collaboration, had chosen to make for the Project. Thus the print held an extra meaning for us.

John’s Story by William S. Johnson
The first and most lasting impression one takes from John is his quietness. John is now eighty-four years old, and his once trim, straight posture has been hampered by an illness that leaves him slightly canted. He also wears hearing aids now. And his voice, never loud, is even softer than it was twenty years ago. But John was always quiet and it has always seemed that his quiet came from a thoughtful calm tied to his subtle sense of balance and order. His dress, manner, and conversation still suggest the self-effacing competence that has traditionally characterized the classic New England character, and John does display many of those attributed characteristics. He listens more than he talks. He is reluctant to discuss his personal opinions casually and only when pressed will he express his thoughts on a subject. He is soft-spoken and misses being laconic only through a natural generosity that forces him to share ideas and ideals with others when he is requested to do so. John is firm in his conviction about public issues such as protecting the natural environment and ending nuclear proliferation, and he practices those beliefs within his everyday actions – but he will never tell you how to act or what to believe. In conversation, John uses a language and style of discussion that is open, non-coercive, and reasoned, even to the point of diffidence. When John is forced to talk about himself, he turns the discussion to his work instead. Even there, in an era when artists are often expected and frequently required to explain themselves and their work, John says little to force any specific direction for the reading of his work.

John’s heritage, his family, and portions of his upbringing during the 1930s and 1940s did, in fact, take place in New England. John, the second of three sons, was born in Delhi, California in 1922. But his father had come from an established New England family. The Woods were among the first settlers of Concord, Massachusetts. Members of the family still owned land in and around Concord when John was growing up. John’s father’s family was large, established and reasonably well-off; they held the tradition that the men would go into engineering or the professions. John’s father, however, loved the land and he studied agricultural sciences at the University of Connecticut. After graduating in the early 1920s, he moved his wife and children to California to homestead a ranch there. But the post-war depression in produce markets plus several years of continued drought burned up that dream, and others that followed. After the ranch was lost the family returned to the east just as the Great Depression was settling into the country at large. So John grew up in a family that lived on the unsettled edge of hard times, never quite as desperate as some, but always needing a little help from the more successful and established members of his extended family. While John was growing up, his own family lived with the maternal grandparents in Kinston, North Carolina, then with his uncle near Rochester, New York, then with John’s paternal grandmother in Concord, Massachusetts. The family also lived briefly in other places as well. John attended nine different schools before he reached the eighth grade.

We were all over the place during the Depression. My father tried to manage a number of farms during that time, but it didn’t work so well. We moved to North Carolina
[where John’s mother’s family lived] where I went to school from the first grade to the third grade. Then we moved to Rochester, New York, and then to a raspberry and potato farm in western New York State, then back to North Carolina. At times it got bad…

I moved too much to make many friends. Because it was always a new situation, I retreated, I backed away. I was uncomfortable socially, and that has lasted through to this day. But I felt comfortable when I was out in nature.

My mother was a great reader and she read to me a lot. When I was young I wound up with an entire set of books by Ernest Thompson-Seton, who was an artist/naturalist. They had these nice, small illustrations. They were very important to me; I read them often. Except for my father, nature was more influential on me than any other thing when I was young.

Before we moved to New England we lived in North Carolina for several years. My mother’s father was a civil engineer and her family ran a piano factory in Kinston, a tobacco town. My grandfather spent a lot of time in Africa getting ivory for the piano keys and he had a lot of tales about that. But Kinston was difficult for me… However, after a year, we moved to Swansboro, which was a little fishing village on the coast. I was about eight or nine and Swansboro was a very interesting place. All kinds of things happened to me there that have to do with motion or water. The entire system there was meaningful to me. The fact of the South, the facts of Swansboro itself, a small fishing village with no electricity during the Depression, the experiences that I had there in relation to the water…. We went boating a lot, it was a very rich fishing ground then — it’s depleted now — but at that time it was very good and I became aware for the first time of all the different things that happened — fishing with gill nets for mullet, going out at night with torches to get flounder, reaching down into holes to get rock crabs.  We would go off and do things…it was an adventure.

[The core of this essay has been adapted from Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures: Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood, by Susan E. Cohen and William S. Johnson. Belmont, MA: Joshua Press, 1986, 242 pp., 36 slides. This was a privately printed, limited edition book produced as one part of the artists’ collaboration , observed by Susie Cohen and Bill Johnson. Unless otherwise credited, all quotations from John Wood are drawn from a number of conversations with him by Susie Cohen and Bill Johnson during 1983-1985 during the course of this project. These were supplemented with several additional interviews with John in 1992 and in 2006.]

“For a time Louise [John’s mother] and the three boys, Norman (“Nonny”), John, and Jimmy, lived in Swansboro, North Carolina, near her sister Jenny who operated a small restaurant. Norman [John’s father] stayed up north to find work and irregularly sent down money. In Swansboro, Louise was particularly distressed with the schools and the poor atmosphere available for the boys. John remembers those years as difficult and fraught with tension, yet he loved the seaside landscape and the life of the small fishing village. He has strong visual memories from this home.

[Another source of information and quotes is the “Monograph on the Work of John Wood – Artist and Teacher,” by Laurie Sieverts Snyder, M. F. A. Thesis, Department of Art Media Studies, College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, 1987. 69 pp. p. 7.]

There was a church for blacks across the street where we lived. Sometimes I would sit (hide) in the bushes behind and listen to the singing. I was nine (?) and the church was in a small fishing village in North Carolina. No black person was allowed in the village after sunset. Maybe they were more white in God’s sun and day. There was a bridge that crossed the Neuse River and connected it to a small sand island. At rip tide the water under the bridge was almost violent. I would walk across on the railing. Often we crossed to the sand island for a picnic. My first look at death was on that island. I found a man in the water. He had been dead for a long time and was black. His skin had changed to white in many places. I sat and looked fro a long time and I think I felt compassion for the first time. I know I was sad for another human being. I ran back across the bridge in some terror and told the man at the drug store. Later I found out that a black man had been murdered. Nothing was ever done about it. I didn’t understand. I never talked to my mother about that. My father was in the north trying to find work. (1932, maybe) My aunt ran a restaurant in town. My uncle was no help – he was usually drunk and often violent and I was afraid of him. One day he brought a black bear cub into the restaurant. I never found out what happened to the mother and I don’t know what finally happened to the cub. I did notice that he was very gentle with the cub. There was a lot of violence in that town smoothed and hidden by kindness. I just began to think about this.

[LSS “Monograph.” Unpublished letter, JW to LSS, postmarked 5 March 1985. pp. 7-8.]

This passage reveals many aspects of John Wood’s personality. In retrospect, this memory marks the first self-conscious moment when John felt compassion for another human being outside of the family constellation. This compassion or caring remains an integral element in John’s personality: it is present in his art work, in his relationship to his friends and students, and his concern for people in distress. The awareness that nothing was done to find the cause of death and the murderer was a lesson about the racial inequalities in that North Carolina town, and even as a small boy he realized this. Another important element in John’s childhood was his pleasure in the outdoors. Exploring alone was exhilarating and educational. To keep his mother from excessive worry about his safety, (Like tightrope walking the bridge rail across the riptide channel to the island) John developed the habit of not telling her what he did. Keeping his actions and thoughts to himself allowed John to develop independence and confidence in his own abilities to explore and observe. He found pleasure in his own company and he liked to look “for a long time.” He still does. He looks leisurely at everything: the landscape, work in museums, student’s work, his own work….”

[LSS “Monograph.” pp. 7-9.]

“The issues of subdued violence comes up frequently in John Wood’s memories….There were silent tensions between Louise and Norman. John remembers no angry conversations, but he does remember his father’s silences and absences and his mother’s complaints and worries. The anxieties in the home were never discussed with the boys – yet the intensity of feelings were present, covered over by “kindness” and silence. The notion that unpleasantness might not exist if you did not talk about it was strongly present in John’s childhood and replays itself over and over again. Compassion, careful looking, keeping your feelings to yourself, and enjoying the environment were enduring qualities developed by John in his childhood.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 9.]

“The marriage [of Louise Cheney Wood] to Norman Wood was not happy. After all the uprootings and insecurities, and finally moving to Concord to live with her domineering mother-in-law, she decided to divorce Norman in 1942. At the time of the divorce, John was an adolescent and doesn’t remember a great deal of fighting or major family discussions centered around the divorce. After the divorce, Louise had several jobs…”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 11.]

John spent his high school years in Concord. Concord was a town that rode out the Depression better than many other parts of the country and John’s acquaintances and friends in school always seemed to have more money than he did. The Woods were a large, close family, and they provided John with much companionship, but he always felt that he was the poor relation, the son of the son who had not followed the correct direction or who had had the bad luck.

It was a nice family. My grandparents had four boys and one daughter. There were lots of cousins around and there were always family activities going on. I remember everyone always getting together. And I had a cousin, Hank Coolidge, who was wonderful. He took all us kids skiing and mountain climbing, and he was a wonderful storyteller. He was the first adult outside of my parents that I had any real attachment to.

I was brought up in a good New England family where you always did something artistic – but the Lord help you if you did it seriously.  My mother and my father’s brother were accomplished musicians. My mother’s family manufactured pianos at one point. On my father’s side, my grandfather was a wonderful family photographer. He documented all the family occasions, at any family gathering the old folding Kodak would come out and he would make portraits of all the kids. My aunt was a painter and a fairly good one, but never really committed to that. She taught Physical Education at the University of Connecticut. My dad became a freelance carpenter and cabinetmaker when the farming didn’t work out, and he worked as a patternmaker at the Navy shipyards in Chelsea. He made beautiful little watercolors all his life. I was aware of artists from a very early age. My great uncle was Thomas Hill, and a number of his paintings were in my grandmother’s living room.

Thomas Hill was an accomplished and successful painter working at the end of the 19th century. His best-known painting, “The Last Spike” (1881), commemorating the building of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, hung in the rotunda of the California State Capitol for many years. John has a very fine painting of Yosemite Valley that Thomas Hill painted as a wedding present for John’s grandmother.

I took my first drawing class at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. It was a Saturday morning class and I must have been in the third or fourth grade. I don’t remember any of the paintings at the museum, but I do remember that there was a photo show there and that I kept a catalog of that show for years.

I made watercolors when I was growing up; at some point I even took a watercolor course and a “How-to-Draw” course one summer down on Cape Anne. I liked to draw and I also made photographs all through high school.

I knew that there was such a thing as an artist but I didn’t connect that with me. I didn’t have any sense that it was possible to be an artist. It was possible to make watercolors and things like that but I don’t think I really knew what an artist was until later.

My mother and father were very sympathetic for creative work and they were supportive from the very beginning. But it was harder with the rest of the family. My uncles and my grandmother were demanding and disciplined people; they expected you to amount to something. I always got the feeling that it was necessary to do something important in the world, and art didn’t count. It was a kind of Puritanism… All my uncles were engineers. My father and one uncle tried to get out from under that, but they didn’t quite make it. They spent their energies getting out, and they didn’t have enough left to do anything else…. So there was a lot of art in the family but somehow I felt that it wasn’t open to me.

When I graduated from high school there was a great need for industrial draftsmen, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was offering a program to train high school graduates in drafting. It was a competitive program, but I was accepted into it. It was a short, intensive course that combined mechanical drawing, calculus, and physics. I went through that course, became a draftsman, and then worked at the Raytheon Company in Waltham for a while, then drafting for Sturgis Architects in Boston.

In 1941, I volunteered for the Air Force. I was nineteen, and for a normal kid growing up in our society at that time that was the only thing to do and that’s what I did.

John was commissioned as an officer and trained as a bomber pilot in the Air Force. His first assignment was to the Training Command, where his task was to verify that the new pilots and bombardiers knew their jobs.

“The Air Force gave him an opportunity to explore new areas of the United States: he was trained in California, Arizona, Texas, then stationed in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska. He learned to fly a variety of large and small planes, and he spent most of his four years teaching pilots to fly…. He never saw active [combat] duty – a situation that was both a relief and a disappointment. He was an excellent trainer and he started to develop attitudes towards teaching that would prove helpful ten years later when he started teaching art. A hallmark of John’s teaching style is an ability to allow a student to find his way, to make mistakes and find his own solution. Wood explained to me that this was a lesson he learned repeatedly in the Air Force; the student pilot can only learn to fly by flying, so the flight instructor has to let go, allow the trainee to fly, even to make mistakes, and to solve them.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 12.]

Later he trained to fly a B-17 bomber for combat, but the war in Europe ended before he was assigned overseas. He then was reassigned to fly the B-29 bomber, but before he finished training for that aircraft, the war with Japan ended. His last task in the Air Force was ferrying B-29’s down to Texas for mothballing. He was demobilized at Lowrey Field in Denver, Colorado in 1945.

 I loved to fly; I was intrigued by the whole business, the entire kinetics of flying is like skiing… The Air Force wasn’t a wasted time for me because of the special and kinetic characteristics of flying; the ways that you perceive perspective, the way that things line up from the air, and the importance of these things all influenced me a great deal. For a long time I was unaware of those influences, but I know now that they were very important for me. My experiences determined a lot of the ways that I go about organizing things. The idea of a static one point perspective had always been uncomfortable for me and my experiences while flying let me escape from that concept a little bit.

I separated from the Air Force in 1945 in Denver. I spent the first winter just bumming around, skiing and such, and then I enrolled in the University of Colorado on the G.I. Bill.

John studied architectural engineering at the University of Colorado, seeking a discipline that would satisfy his own interests and still be viewed as practical and acceptable by his family. But he soon began to feel that the technically-oriented program at the university was not for him.

It was totally provincial. A lot was happening in structural architecture and design. Buckminster Fuller, Nervi, Mallart, and others were doing a lot in those fields, but I didn’t hear anything about it at the school. So I didn’t even know about those issues at that time. I came home at Christmastime a year later and I just never went back.

John moved back to Massachusetts where he lived with his mother in Boston. The city offered him personal freedom and cultural nourishment. He started a small commercial photographic studio (Anderson & Wood Photography: Aerial & Commercial) in Concord with his high-school friend, Bill Anderson, who had been a Marine Corps fighter pilot during the war. Bill and John began their business by flying a Piper Cub around Concord, taking aerial photographs of commercial greenhouse farms “with a Speed Graphic that we stuck out the door.” They then sold their work to the businesses they had photographed. In time they began to do portraiture and other commercial work as well.

I had been taking photos since I was twelve, but Bill and I both took a course on studio portraiture from a photographer named Shaw, I think, on Newbury Street in Boston. He had been a student of William Mortensen and he had all the print retouching techniques that Mortensen was famous for, but his original negatives were clean and well-made and we got a good technical training in lighting and negative making. The idea of Mortensen is a little embarrassing to me but I did keep the idea of reworking prints from that experience. And later, at the Institute of Design, when I got used to cutting up images and fitting them together on the page with typography, these things led into collage techniques in a very natural way.

As John worked over the next few years in his and Anderson’s studio, he gradually developed and fostered an interest in contemporary art and in creative photography.

I wasn’t aware of art photography, just what I’d seen in the magazines, photojournalism and the like. I feel that there was a real lag in my awareness, almost ten years of my life. In a way I consider myself, in terms of contact and influences, to be ten years younger than I am. I wandered around Boston in my spare time taking photographs. I was a street photographer for a time; it seemed necessary for me to do that, but I didn’t know where it was going to lead.

“Whenever he could, John looked at pictures. In 1949 he bought his first Rolliflex twin lens reflex camera for his own pictures and had his own, “very junky” enlarger in his mother’s Boylston Street apartment. In addition to the photography classes [with Shaw] he took drawing and watercolor classes and later he took night classes at Boston University in aesthetics and psychology. His relationship with his mother was very pleasant. He enjoyed the location of her apartment because he could walk to the museums and the Boston Public Library.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 14.]

I began to look for connections. I read some magazines like
U.S. Camera and American Photography, and I went over to the Boston Public Library and looked for books. They had an excellent collection of books on photography. That’s where I discovered Edward Weston and then Paul Strand’s portfolio on Mexico.

About 1948 or 1949 I saw an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York which was the first time I’d ever seen actual [creative] photographs. Some things were happening in creative photography and some people were out there but I didn’t know anything about it. My first contact [with contemporary art] was also through books. I remember very distinctly being in love with Kandinsky’s work, which I knew through the little Skira book. I didn’t have any friends who were artists, and the museums around Boston didn’t show much abstract work then — that movement was just getting started — except the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston which was open at this time. I remember hearing Oskar Kokoschka talk at his exhibit. I even took his portrait and had ideas of photographing other painters.

I was getting tired of the commercial studio and I was really ready for a change when I found Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s
Vision in Motion in the library one day. I think that you discover people [as influences] once you’ve discovered it in yourself. Moholy-Nagy came to me after I’d already worked some of the ideas out for myself. But Vision in Motion really connected for me, and somehow I learned that Moholy-Nagy had set up the Institute of Design in Chicago.

I married Suzanne Watson in the Spring of 1950, and the idea of my stopping working in the studio became even stronger since the business wasn’t big enough to support both Bill’s family and mine. That summer we drove out to California to visit Zanne’s father. On the way I stopped at I. D., applied, and was accepted into the program.

John was twenty-seven years old. He had amassed considerable practical experience and had had brief contact with a broad range of art forms, but he still had not considered art a valid career. When he enrolled in the program at the Institute of Design in Chicago, he and Suzanne began living in a converted store-front. A colleague of his from that time, Ray Martin, recalls:

John Wood was especially important to those of us whose interests extended beyond commercial design to the fine arts…I was influenced by his experimental approach to art and design. …What made his presence at the school more impressive was the fact that he set up a complete living and working space in [the store front].  He had a photo darkroom, type cases and platen press, proof press, etching press, work tables, etc.  Because of John’s generosity, many students spent time there, talking, working, glad to be part of his creative realm.”

[Quote from LSS “Monograph.” p. 15.]

At I.D. I trained to be a visual designer, I wasn’t training to be an artist. I had practical issues to consider, like how to make a living. Even during the program it didn’t dawn on me that that was a way I could go. But when I got to I. D., I began to meet artists. Harry Callahan was the first person who impressed on me the idea that you could commit yourself to some kind of thing that was called “art.” Several people at I.D. were real artists — Callahan, Siskind, Hugo Weber (a painter), Misch Kohn (a printmaker) — and for the first time I began to get a feeling for what that meant. Even at that point I was choosing between different media; I started in photography but then I went into typography, print making, and design. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I was beginning to try to decide.

I knew Harry Callahan, but Aaron [Siskind] got there after I switched away from photography so I never took any classes with him, although I did get to know him. There was a young fellow from Denmark, Keld Helmer Petersen, who had published a book of color photographs — very abstract — who was teaching there, and that was the first color work like that that I had seen. Remember that everything was still isolated in those days, in the early 1950s, a small number of books were out. Maybe if you were really into things in New York City, then you might have known what was really going on, but otherwise it was pretty scattered.

Harry Callahan had his first show at the Art Institute of Chicago the first year that I was there and I think that that was the first photo show that they had there. Frederick Sommer came in for a week to teach and I was impressed by him. Art Sinsabaugh taught there as well, but I had become interested in printmaking by then.

There was a three-semester foundation course that everyone from graduate students to people just out of high school had to take, and a lot of the people were veterans, so it was a pretty lively group. Just because of the group that was there then, we became very interested in printmaking and we set up some presses and all that. That group consisted of Ray Martin, Ivan Chermayeff, Michael Traine, Norman Kantor, Marty Moskov, and others. Len Gittleman was a good friend of mine.
[Len Gittleman was a photographer and filmmaker who taught the still photography courses offered to the undergraduates in the Visual Studies program at Harvard through the 1960s and 1970s.] Len and I made a movie, THE PRESS, about the printing press. It was a nice movie but we had problems clearing copyright on the score that we borrowed from a recording of a work by Stravinsky and we never were able to get it re-scored.

While in his fourth year at school, and still a student, Wood began teaching a course in visual fundamentals at the Institute of Design. John graduated from the Institute in 1954. He had intended to move to San Francisco after graduation, find a job there, then buy a printing press and print his own graphics and books as well as work for other artists. But he was offered a job while still in his last semester at I. D.

In 1954 Charles Harder, the director of the New York State College of Ceramics in Alfred, New York was touring art and design schools in New York and Chicago searching for someone to teach printmaking and typography at Alfred. Alfred University is a small school founded in the 1830s and located in a tiny village in a rural portion of western New York, amid the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. The school has always had a strong arts program and its New York College of Ceramics was highly regarded. Harder visited the Institute of Design during John’s last semester there, and, on the recommendation of the I. D. faculty, offered the position to John.

“At the time, the Alfred program was narrowly focused on industrial design, “pottery production,” and teaching, although it had continued its original objectives combining scientific, technical, art and practical training.  Charles Harder had become head of the design program in 1944 and, with his beliefs about teaching and education “in hand,” he was searching for a new faculty member.  His search would lead him to New York and to the Chicago’s Institute of Design.  Faculty there recommended John Wood as someone who met the criteria established by Harder.”

Harder’s philosophy and vision is well-documented; a potter would benefit by being taught concepts and skills other than pot-making.  By hiring John Wood and giving him the flexibility to teach what and how he wanted, the program could develop into what it is today.  John Wood brought his experience with foundations from I.D. and his own sensibilities about broadening students’ choices to the program.  He “didn’t want things to be isolated.” (Shefrin, et al.)  The environment of the department nourished an interaction between and among faculty and students that provided the opportunity for creativity and change, invention, and experimentation.

Harder’s belief in the importance to an education program of exposure to high quality media (music, art, design), was the beginning of the change process, but its form and success can be credited (in large part) to John Wood’s philosophy, creativity, adherence to specific values.  Harder had selected Wood on the basis of these traits; the person and the environment were a good match.”

[Wood, Carol. “John Wood…” Unpublished Essay, 1997. 6 pp.]

When I first got to Alfred I was just going to teach one class. It was nice for me to be earning a real salary after so long. I really loved teaching and I still do. I have a great deal of difficulty with the bureaucracy in schools and with the interpersonal politicking that goes on, but I like the teaching. ‘Zanne and I decided to stay for four years and take one class through the school… but, for one reason or another, we’ve been here ever since.

“Changes were often brought about because of Wood’s own personal experimentation and desire for ways to manipulate and move images.  For example, his experience in Chicago had included work at a graphic design company doing big posters.  When he arrived in Alfred, he really wanted to continue that work but had to develop the technology here in order to keep it going.  He describes adapting a photo-silkscreen process in order to combine photography and lithography, and building a complex system for developing movie film.  Through his work and exploration, the crossing of media happened.  (Shefrin, et al.)

The course in visual design was conceptualized and taught as a foundation program–Wood was left to his own devices about what to teach. Again, his quiet commitment to typography and photography led him to provide his own equipment so that the students could explore those media.  He did not serve in an administrative position; from the start he effected change from the classroom. As early as 1955, one year after he arrived, the curriculum was changing to offer a “track” considered fine arts, for the first time, rather than strictly design.”

[CW. “John Wood.” p. 3.]

“When he arrived at Alfred John taught visual design, typography, book design and printmaking. However, for his own work he wanted photographic facilities and this he set up with his own equipment at the college. The students became interested in photography so he started teaching photography on his own time. When he started to have as many students in his photography classes as there were in the ceramics classes, Ted Randall, chairman of the art department, suggested they start a photography program.”

[LSS “Monograph.” p. 18.]

“By 1965 the Department of Design became the Department of Art — “reflecting more accurately its work and activities” (NYSCC Annual Report 1965, Appendix F)  In the period of time between the first mention of fine arts and the structural shift to the Department of Art, Wood’s ideas about visual design permeated the program.  The first team-taught course, however, was almost accidental.  Eric Renner (faculty member during the late Sixties) who taught 3-D studies, and John Wood decided to teach their classes together.  Wood remembers this as an historical event, and also as an exciting, collaborative time period in the history of the school.”

[CW. “John Wood.” p. 3.]

“The BFA Program in Photography “…began in 1970 in response to the need and demand for such a concentration… and by 1977 was offering five courses to about one hundred and sixty students each year…”

[“Video History Project: Resources: Groups: Alfred University.” (Aug. 22, 2006).]

There is a thread of tension running through John’s quiet narrative of his early life; a sense of pressures felt and possibilities denied. Alfred must have seemed like an unexpected turn in the road, and possibly something of a haven. Suddenly John had the opportunity to live amidst the type of countryside he loved. At the same time he was permitted –even encouraged- to unleash the suppressed creativity that had always been a part of him.

And John did exactly that. He taught at Alfred with care and commitment for nearly thirty-five years, until his retirement in 1987. Former students of John’s, at all levels of accomplishment and commitment, respond with affection at the mention of his name. In a statement published when she was appointed Dean at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, E. Jessie Shefrin began her list of important influences with John Wood’s name.

[“New York State College of Ceramics. College News. Veteran art professor leaves to become dean at Rhode Island School of Design.” (Aug. 22, 2006)]

Shefrin had earlier stated John’s importance to the teaching program and its students at Alfred in a ceremony honoring him at the reopening of the design study studios at the school in 1995.

He came to Alfred in 1955.  He came as an artist, to teach and to learn.  He left in 1987 to continue to teach and to learn.  He is teaching something right now by being here.  He is teaching something about re-turning, about re-making, about re-visioning.  He is teaching about being present.  And don’t look now because he is probably doodling on a napkin that will probably find its way into a book, which we will probably end up buying in a few years for our rare book collection.

And that’s the way things go with John. One thing turns into something else right in front of your eyes and often without words.  So, you have to pay attention.  You have to learn how to listen visually.  You have to learn how to get your own attention, or you might not hear the voice of Black Elk speaking to you about Wounded Knee on December 12, 1890 in one of John’s drawings.  You might not notice the small article in today’s paper on page twelve about the thousands of Rwandans murdered by government forces in a makeshift refugee camp.  You might not stop on your way home to look up and see the woodcock circling above your head about to dive down, telling you it is spring.  You might miss the connections.

And that’s the way things go with John.  They connect.  Sometimes now.  Sometimes then.  Sometimes here.  Sometimes there.  Sometimes circuitously — sometimes so clearly and simply that nothing can be said, and you are left dumbfounded, not knowing how you got here or where you’re going but knowing that something profound has just happened to you.

In recognition of all the small and indestructible gifts that you, John, have given to the many people who are seated before you now and the many people who couldn’t be here, to the students in all the studios in this school working right now, who aren’t here, because they aren’t alumni yet but who somehow feel who you are, because the gifts get passed on.  They get passed on in the tools that get made and used.  In the vessels that hold tusche.  In the lines drawn around the bend, on the top of the hill.  In the light that gets captured in a moment and then gets reprocessed 20 times, 20 different ways.  In the moving images that spur dreams.  In the marks that float off the pages and turn into angles of repose.  In knowing that to get to a place you have never been, you must go by a road you have never taken.

We celebrate the opening of our new studio facilities by naming them not after you, not for you, but in the spirit of you.  And in so doing, we challenge ourselves to create open studios where ideas, energy and conversation can move freely up and down the stairs, around the corners and across the building; to be mindful of the boundaries, the borders and the territories that come with doors that lock; to re-dedicate ourselves to the practice and joy of teaching and its intricate relationship to the living process of making work.

We offer you all our love and all our thanks.”

[CW.”John Wood.” p. 1. Quoting from pp. 4-5 in VITA (alumni publication) School of Art and Design, Alfred University, 1995-1996.]

“When Wood retired in 1988, former students and faculty were invited to write their “testimonials” for presentation to him at the formal retirement dinner.  The response was overwhelming; testimonials were sent in from all parts of the country and from every generation of alumni.  Writings, drawings and photographs were included in the packets; demonstrating the impact John Wood had on their lives.”

[CW. “John Wood.” p. 4.]

Yet in 1984, when the Society for Photographic Education asked John to be the “Honored Speaker” at its annual meeting, John hesitated for several weeks before accepting the honor; for he was neither a member of the SPE, nor was he certain that the honor should come to him.

John had participated in the Invitational Teaching Conference at the George Eastman House held in November 1962 which was one of the seminal meetings leading to the formation of the Society for Photographic Education. And John sat on three of the panels presented during the conference. When asked why he did not join the new organization; John simply shrugged and said, “Those things are difficult for me. I attended once in a while, but I don’t particularly like organizations.” Later, choosing to expand his answer, he continued:” I don’t have an intellectual relationship to photography, I like to read about it, but...” In response to the statement that he made very smart photographs, he said, “Those are two different things.” When pushed a little further, he stated his philosophy of teaching.

I’ve been teaching now
[1984] for thirty-one years and that’s occupied a lot of my energies. The first five years at Alfred I was learning how to teach. I guess I’m a good teacher partly because I listen and I’m also willing to meet the student exactly where he or she is. I don’t impose my philosophy on the student. I try to have them discover their own position. If I would take pride in anything it would be that I feel all too often that some people will go to a person’s work and say why didn’t you do this or that, but I’d much rather go to the work, find out what’s there, see if I can find out whatever the seed is that’s going on, and then let the student find out what that may be.

Also, I was trained at the Institute of Design, which grew out of the Bauhaus philosophy. And their foundation program was very good and exciting and a lot of my ideas came out of that experience. One of the interesting parts of that philosophy was that it is much better to teach a philosophy of tools and materials rather than a specific tool. And I also happen to believe that process is more important than what the final product looks like. I seem to be good at putting together problems that lead people towards that discovery. A good problem for me is where students at any level, no matter what their background, can approach it equally.

And I’m not cynical with the students either.

I manage to teach one or two workshops every summer. I’ve been doing that for about fifteen years now. I’ve taught at Penland in North Carolina, at Haystack, the Parsons School at Lake Placid, New York, and I’ve taught quite a few summers at the Visual Studies Workshop. I like the workshops, particularly if they are short. It’s a different relationship than in the regular school sessions.

In addition to teaching, John has continued to create his own art with a relentlessness that is only partially hidden by his modest manner and his lack of self-promotion. John creates art continuously, moving across the various mediums of drawing, photography, painting, printmaking, and bookmaking in a process that sifts, reorders and extends the ideas, concepts, and processes that are combined within his organic, elegant body of work. The consistency of this long effort was pointed out by Aaron Siskind in a 1978 interview. Aaron stated, in the context of a conversation about an artist’s concerns with and dedication to the creation of his art, “...more recently, …we have a person like John Wood, whose motivations are of the purest – I mean he’s one of the most dedicated human beings you can find in this world.

[“A conversation between Aaron Siskind and Diana Johnson,” Spaces. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I., 1978, p. 15.]

Although John will freely explain how any specific work that he has created was generated, he usually does not care to discuss any meanings that it might have. He becomes uneasy if either he or someone else starts to interpret any pieces in terms of a specific, thus limiting, critical framework. He is more articulate and at ease when he is discussing his own discoveries and the directions he has chosen to follow to create his art. The free-flowing form of such a discussion, pausing at one point for an embellishment, jumping to another point to add a highlight or some coloration to his discourse, is in itself a most apt delineation of the evolution and dimensions of his creative process.

I’ve been accused of spreading myself thin and I admit to it. My studio is full of the different directions that I travel, which range from purely abstract exploration to image making of one sort or another. I cut through several mediums. I do go through a whole range of things. I’ll do one thing, then that will lead to another, then to another. It’s hard for me to say where things stop. I’ll make a collage which leads to a montage which leads to the next thing and so on…my objects are always going through different transformations.

John will photograph a pile of pebbles he had gathered and placed outside his studio to break the runoff of the rain from his porch roof. He may make a silver print from that negative, then later make a xerox enlargement from that print and use that xerox as a negative to generate a cyanotype contact print, which, in turn, may be collaged into a larger work with other prints or drawings, or combined with handmade paper, or maybe bound into an artist’s book. And the image may appear in a different form or a different configuration in another work the following week, or the following month, or five years later.

I’m continually recycling things; I hate to throw anything away. I’ll recycle images back and forth for a long time until eventually I get embarrassed that a particular image is showing up so often. Then I’ll remove it. When I’m making a piece and I’m in the process of searching for something I need in my studio — a negative or a particular print or whatever — quite often I come across something else. It’s a kind of continual process that goes on. It can get exasperating if I can’t find what I’m looking for, but I don’t object because a lot of my images grow out of that search. It looks chaotic but the process works for me. I’ll start over here at this spot [in my studio] and then on the way over there to pick something up I’ll get stopped by something interesting. I used to fight against that but I don’t anymore. That’s the way I work and it’s where the things that I’m most exited about come from.

John does not claim to have total control over the act of creativity. The idea of process is very much a part of his work. He leaves the work open and the process ongoing to include the viewer as the final link in the creative act.

When I’m putting images together I don’t have a narrative that I’m trying to tell. I locate images randomly and then move them around until I find things that I feel have some relationship to each other. That relationship may be in terms of color, an aspect of geometry, or some sense of how an image works. At some point, if I’m lucky, two or three things will begin to operate: the colors, the formal aspects, or perhaps the shapes. Shape is very strong with me. I like the idea that shapes have a life to themselves which is not a narrative life but some kind of feeling that effects us very strongly. I think these things are universal…

So I play with this material until some kind of connection begins to be made. They certainly are not verbal connections, but some kind of vibrations begin to happen and the pieces begin to echo each other. When I work best things are just flowing out. I trust my subconscious; I think it knows more than my conscious mind does.

The way I work with the doublet collages, for example, it’s like a poetry structure; it’s like Haiku, the form lets you put disconnected things together and the viewer has to connect them for himself. It’s in the connecting that it becomes important.

John was quietly amused when asked if he were religious. He denied any adherence to a particular belief, although he commented that he was impressed by the lifestyle and ideas of Zen Buddhism. Transcendentalism, a philosophy born near 19th century Concord, Massachusetts, with its precepts about the close and quiet observation of nature and the assertion that intuition should dominate empirical experience, also forms the backbone of John’s thought. He has found even more direct influences in people and events closer to his own time.

I started out studying architectural engineering, so I’m very interested in structure. Buckminster Fuller was the first person to make me aware of a different kind of structure that I hadn’t intuited before. He was important to me in the sense that all of his world ideas really hit a chord and so he was a kind of hero for me. I like a lot of the “primary ideas” that he had about things. Fuller was great at distilling things down to one idea. He would start with a little triangle and gradually the whole world would evolve out of that. He preached continually that we have the knowledge to solve our world problems and that we must do so now. He was an optimist. It’s obvious that we have the information; but the work isn’t being done, is it? But Fuller came to I. D. to lecture when I was there. He talked literally for three days straight; the energy was amazing.

The idea of structure informs John’s way of seeing the world. Both his heritage and his training stress systematic thinking and creative solutions to practical problems. At the time he leaves space for the beneficial possibilities of intuition. John feels most comfortable when he senses the presence of a pattern or perceives a congruence within his own art and a system of order within the larger world. He feels best when his work alludes to an interconnectedness within the structures and events of the world. This is apparent in the pleasure John shows when describing the principles behind a model of an icosahedron made by the intersection of three golden rectangles that he built out of card-board and string years ago, which now hangs in a corner of his living room; or at demonstrating an elegant solution to a difficult carpentry problem; or in the little wooden “figures” — balancing tightrope-walking katchina figures, birds, or little fantastic animals he makes as presents for his now grown children — works which display a touch of quiet whimsy and a delicate artisanry hard to match outside of Calder’s Circus.

Much of John’s artwork is set up to demonstrate the rule of some process, or the dominion of a form, or the nature of a structure within the medium, which John then explores or expands through the deft play of his ingenuity. These principles fuel John’s continued interest in the “system drawings” and the folded-paper drawings, as well as his experiments with the multi-framed photograph series.

While John takes pleasure in working with aspects of the materials he uses, which he then can play within and against a continually renewed series of innovative solutions, this is not the sole or even the primary aim of his art. John insists that his works contain combinations of meanings – multiple associations, groupings of visual possibility, personal meaning, and metaphoric potential. In short, he insists that they function as poetry. And, in that context, his continued investigations of the boundaries of rule and the possibilities of intuition take on the dimensions of questioning the boundaries of order and freedom.

Landscape is one of the major sources of nourishment for John and consequently one of the major themes in his art. He has drawn upon several different landscapes over the years. First, there is the landscape that he has lived in for years, the gently rolling hills and rural meadows around Alfred, New York. It is a countryside of farms and reverted farm-lands, with open fields bound by hedgerows of scrub timber and patchwork blocks of deciduous forest. In the summer this country can be beautiful, the meadows full of flowers, butterflies, and birds. The winters are harder, laden with the heavy snowfalls common to the snowbelt on the underside of Lake Ontario. It’s a quiet country. Those parts of John’s work that reflect this landscape are also quiet, private, and gentle.

The light is different in Alfred than in New Mexico and the gestures of the landscape are different and the whole kinetic changes — the wind and the rain, and all the rest of it — is different. And those are the things that I react to. I don’t draw them specifically, but I react to them when they come up. Although the landscapes of Alfred and New Mexico are different, my relationship to them is the same.

It isn’t just that you look out there and see a mountain. It’s how things fluctuate with it. If a gesture is very important to me, if it’s something that moves and so forth, those are my sources to develop from. Sometimes I’ll have a mountain in my drawings, but almost invariably there will also be some situation that moves with it.

The other important landscape for John is the more flamboyant, colorful countryside of northern New Mexico. John fell in love with that country years ago when he and his wife Suzanne camped there while traveling to California. John spent a sabbatical year in Santa Fe in 1965, painting and drawing and establishing contacts with the local people. Since that year John has spent almost every summer in New Mexico. His son, Michael, now lives in Santa Fe with his family. And old friends such as Eric Renner, a colleague of John’s since they taught together at Alfred in the mid-sixties, live in New Mexico as well.
John frequently includes images of his friends in his work; it is one of the ways that the works resonates for him. An important figure which has appeared throughout John’s art during the past years is a portrait of a friend he made on his first visit to New Mexico in 1965.

At some point I was photographing in Chimayo, which is a little Mexican weaving village up in the mountains, and I met this Malacio, who was a Spanish man who had lived there a long time. He’d worked at the YMCA in El Paso for years and years and then retired and moved back up to his home town of Chimayo. I met him and rented a nice little studio room from him that year. I used to go up there three times a week to draw during the entire year that I was out there. I would arrive up there and start down to the studio and Malacio would always come to the door and ask me in for a cup of coffee. I’d go in, have a cup of coffee and we would talk, and then I’d go down to the studio and work.

After that, I’d go out there and rent the studio from him every year until eventually he sold it. He wanted to sell it to me and I wanted to buy it, but it never happened and eventually I figured out that all the deeds are held by the “ditch people” (who run the irrigation ditches) and if I had bought it I would have been one of the first Anglos in there and I think that they just wouldn’t accept that.

Anyway, he was just a wonderful man and we became very good friends. His mother had been an herbalist and the studio room was filled with dried herbs. I would ask him if he knew anything about it and he would always say “no.” But as the years went by he gradually taught me some things, so I learned several good teas and things like that from him.

John has made works in a variety of media that use portraits of Malacio. The portraits frequently are embedded within the New Mexico landscape, or juxtaposed against the New Mexico sky, to convey the interconnectedness of the man and the place.

I relate the indigenous Spanish people to that landscape and the Indians even more strongly because there are still traces from way back. The ruins that you find are Indian. So that part of what’s out there did affect me – it’s a source.

The third landscape valued by John is more metaphorical. It is the landscape of the past history of human creativity. Just as John values the tropes and concepts that allude to the presence of an order in the world, so is he attracted to those traces of past systems of ordering and craftsmanship he finds in the world around him. In the southwest, John is attracted to pictographs, or the patterns on prehistoric pots, or the patterns left by the ruined foundations of an Anasazi dwelling, which are still sitting in the terrain of the present. In New England, John is attracted to the craftsmanship of a ship carpenter’s railing or a weathervane. In every situation he chooses subjects that are intimate in scale, that are specific, and particular. Nothing of the grand vista for him: the vision is always private, the perception is always elegant.   

When John fits together his multilayered collages he is actually fusing a landscape of the past and the present, the terrain and its history, its physical presence and its psychic feeling. Within that structure John will make two major statements. The first is an honoring of certain values, of friendship, or the character of individuals who he knows and likes, or the qualities of intellect and skill that go into the creation of systems of conceptualization and actual works of art, the values of civilization. The second statement is an acknowledgement of the threats to the values and qualities he admires. His “gun in the landscape” series, his references to nuclear disaster, the implications of violence and destruction, are co-opted into his art patterning. These works frequently have a quality of uncertainty about them. John responds to the issues posed within the work with a wry, grim humor.

Drawing is the thing that affects me the most. I’m continually in a state of drawing and no day goes by that I don’t draw something. Mark-making, calligraphy, the kinetic motion of the movement of the hand, are very important to me, probably more important than anything else.

When I go out to New Mexico and draw, I don’t draw what I see. I absorb what I see, and the movement of the landscape, the space, the light, and the colors all come out on the paper. Sometimes it resembles the things out there and sometimes it doesn’t. My abstract work grows out of this as well. The gestures of the landscape are in a lot of my abstract drawings. A lot of my work is horizontal and I think that’s because it grows out of the landscape, which is horizontal for me. A lot of my systems drawings grow out of actual situations.

After I started doing my systems drawings I discovered the Mimbres pottery of the southwest. The designs on that pottery are sometimes crudely drawn but the configurations are always complex and profound. These “primitive” people must have had such a clear sense of order…

Then there are my “self-stenciled drawings,” which are based on the idea of a primary measuring fold, which depends on how many ways that you can fold a sheet of paper…It’s the simplest thing in the world and yet the space becomes very dynamic. These things grow out of some self-determining system.

I suppose that if I had to boil my work down and then do only one or two kinds of art, then I would go for the kinetic drawings and straight photography. I used to have a very nice relationship with photography. It was a peaceful thing that I did. I loved it and I did it, and so forth. Gradually it became a little more intensive. I finally discovered that photography is very hard, in that it’s difficult for me to get the images that I want since it’s such an instantaneous medium. But it’s becoming easy — or at least fun — again.

In photography the place where I discovered that I could work with the issue of any kind of system ideas has been in the multi-framed groups [as in “Nathan Left to Right and Right to Left” or “Self-Portrait Holding a Rope”] where I lined up the frames of the individual prints in ways that broke from a straight forward recording of the subject. Some of my early photographs, the multi-framed pieces, were an attempt to get some kind of kinetic energy into my photography. These weren’t movie making, although I also tried making some short films, but I was just trying to explore the idea that the camera itself could move and that I could move the camera. For a long time this was the most important issue for me and it grew out of my interest in kinetic issues. When I first started doing the multi-framed photographs I wanted my action of taking the picture to become part of the thing. The kinetics of the visual message differ from the kinetics of the taking message…

I had done a number of multiframed images before I went out to New Mexico, but when I was out there I photographed with a 4″ x 5″ and I also had a 35mm camera, and I began to really feel that I wanted the movements that I was making while I was taking the photographs to show up in the photographs themselves. So I began to think about that.
I think about these things [conceptual ideas about the medium] a lot and my sketchbook is full of little ideas about how the frame works and all that sort of thing. But it’s only when these things come together with something that I care about — a person that I know or a situation that I’m interested in — that it becomes interesting to me and I make a photograph. Just the idea by itself is not enough for me.

I think that things have a secondary life. For example, a photograph that is really loved by a lot of people does begin to have a kind of energy that it didn’t have before. And I think, although it’s really difficult to get at, to explain with words, that when a photographer is really concerned about something over a period of time, then that energy begins to enter into his work. And that it is different than someone who takes a pretty picture — I don’t know how — but it’s there in the work. I really think that if some kind of energy is brought to bear in making an image, even in photography, which is the most mechanical of mediums, that it communicates itself somehow.

I think that each artist has to think out the relationship between his work and his use of materials and energy. Each artist is different, and what may be wasteful and overdone for one may be necessary for another.

John lives a lifestyle that, while neither excessively frugal nor unreasonably restricted, is careful and modest in the use of the panoply of consumer goods available in America. His sense of citizenship extends into social and political arenas. He keeps informed on issues, he votes, he knows why he’s voting as he is. He quietly supports the activities of a number of world relief organizations. On those occasions when he has determined that an issue needs more active support, he has expressed his opinions publicly, participating in protests against ecological abuses or the Vietnam War. When social or political issues come into his art however, he is most vigilant that they remain in a controlled fashion, staying in a careful balance with other, visual, concerns.

My life is pretty simple in some ways. I live out here in the country. I think that my life has a number of threads that do interpenetrate each other. I would like to keep those things in balance somehow or other — the environmental and political concerns, my personal life. I don’t sacrifice one at the expense of the other although the concentration of my work may get sacrificed while I’m trying to maintain a balance between all that.

‘Zanne and I were active politically; we support things. But I have to say that I’m becoming more and more non-political as time goes by. But that’s separate from my image concerns; my image concerns are a much harder nut to crack. For example, I would like to have gun control in the United States and I’ve done a whole series of images about “the gun in the landscape,” but they are actually pretty mild, they are often almost whimsical. I feel funny about the fact that they are never very outspoken when I remember some of the earlier photo-collagists such as John Heartfield who used his work like a weapon. I haven’t done that and I don’t know what it means except that my imagery is more on the lyrical side. Maybe we should hang everything up and go out and fight against nuclear proliferation, but so far I haven’t done that. I let the ideas creep into my imagery. I guess I want my photocollages to interact with how I feel about my friends, people I know, and the world. I’m always in argument with myself either to do more or to tend to business.

I did a lot of protest things during the Vietnam war — I started doing collages about 1963 or 1964. I wanted to make how I felt about the war known, and the photocollage seemed to be a wonderful way to do it. I started a series that I call “quiet protests.” I very consciously did not want to create propaganda. Some people exploited all of the emotions associated with the war to their own advantage and I didn’t want to do that, but I wanted to take a stand somehow or other. These “quiet protest” pieces were never vicious and they always have an aesthetic edge to them. There were several images that were probably stronger in their protest but they weren’t as interesting to me because they didn’t meet the boundaries of my aesthetic judgments – I wanted some sense of the whole thing wrapped together.

Since then concerns have become more difficult, and things are more subtle, but they are the same. I’ve made work on the nuclear bomb and on the environment. Environmental things are much harder to get at, but I’m still dealing with them.

I no longer think that I can do photographs that are going to change the Department of Defense, or that my photographs will stop a major corporation from polluting the land and that’s why I maintain my position about abstraction in art. I’m a formalist about my own work. I would maintain that you can say something about your world with abstraction. That’s how you really get at the guts of a thing through your work. If you present some sense of life to somebody else then that’s how you’re doing it. I feel that pretty strongly. My work becomes more and more abstract as I go along. I think that art has its greatest effect when it makes people sensitive to life. And that’s more important than how well or badly images can stir people to immediate political action. That belief gives me the courage to do the kinds of things I do.

In 1970 John published a prose poem in the catalogue for the exhibition 12 x 12 held at the Rhode Island School of Design. The poem outlined his perception of life as a citizen and as an artist.

Thoughts on large numbers
and small
I’m one person and have

two children and
one wife
Some small numbers have
a direct relation to me
35mm tri-X 20 exposures
28mm f2.8 400 ASA
One at a time sometimes
several at a time
one two three
I know how to photograph
my friends and even
begin to know about
small numbers
But I’m part of some large numbers
10 photographs can be
arranged in
3,628,800 different ways
There are 3,200,000,000 people
in the world
many are hungry and
some are not
The last unpolluted air in
the USA was in Flagstaff
six years ago
Rivers catch fire in Cleveland
It takes 50,000 gallons of water
to make one ton of paper
We discard or destroy 20,000,000
tons of paper every year
There are 83 million cars
in the U.S.A.
142 million tons of smoke & fumes
Our highway program destroys
one million acres of oxygen
producing trees and green stuff
Six percent of the world’s people
use sixty percent of the
world’s resources
Large numbers are hard to feel
but the idea is there
no matter how you number it
I’m pleased that Weston followed
his vision in spite of the
depression and that Einstein
knew more about atoms than about politics
But maybe the time has come
for creative photography
to encompass the large
problems without propaganda
or journalism
No answers but I want
the large numbers to
enter my photography

[John Wood, 12×12, Carr House Gallery, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R. I., 1970, n. p.]

And again in 1977, in a statement written for an exhibition held at the Vision Gallery in Boston, John stated his belief in what made the creative act valuable for him.

I would like my pictures to be abstract
and poetic visual images
of friends and the world
no story telling
sometimes slight propaganda and quiet protest
on the edge of clear meaning.

In 1983 John, who had enjoyed his experience while team teaching with Eric Renner, was interested when Susie Cohen and I approached him to participate in another collaborative effort. Our project involved four artists—Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood meeting with us and together with each other several times over a two year span, showing work and exchanging ideas among themselves and with us, then finally all spending a week together in isolation to work out a final collaborative project. An aim of the Project was to try to document the process of creative activity rather than simply display the art product resulting from the creativity. The Project was loosely formed, with the photographers choosing and controlling what, if anything, they wanted to produce.

Ultimately, each of the artists agreed to produce an original sixteen-page signature for an artist’s book. Each did so, and the final product of the project was to be an exhibition and book of those signatures with our supporting texts plus an accompanying exhibition of the signatures as well as a body of related photographs by each artist. “The Project”, as we called it, was supported by Eelco Wolf, then a Vice-President for the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wolf was providing support for several innovative artists’ projects leading to exhibitions and books at the time. This support paid for Susie’s and my time, everyone’s travel and incidental expenses, production and exhibition costs, etc. The artists contributed their interest, ideas and time. The project was completed; the exhibition chosen and framed, the book designed and waiting to go to press, when the Polaroid Corporation acquired a new President; who established new and different policies for the company’s corporate support for the arts, and the funding support for this and other projects, over Eelco Wolf’s protests, was withdrawn. 

John’s sixteen-page signature for this project consisted of a nine image sequence of 16” x 20” black and white prints, which, for the book signature, opened with a vertical image page right and ended with a vertical image, page left, with seven double-page spreads of horizontal images sandwiched between. This sequence was later published in 1987; in the exhibition catalog 4 x 4 Four Photographers by Four Writers. Susie Cohen wrote the essay accompanying John’s work in that catalog. Her essay was in two parts. Part I was essentially the statement about John’s work that she had written for the Polaroid Project book. Part II was a discussion of the new photographic sequence itself.

“I. John Wood is an accomplished artist in a dozen media: printmaking, photography, bookmaking, painting, collage, graphic design, sculpture, installation, and a few he has invented combining those listed. “Accomplished artist” implies recognition by a knowledgeable community of a committed artist’s sustained and successful effort. This has some value for John. He is unassuming but not unworldly. The finished work, and the recognition of it are to John as clothing is to the naked body: it protects, it becomes, it provides access to the wearer. It is not, however, the essential spirit of the man. There is one medium that John uses that comes as close as an artifact can to expressing its maker, and that is drawing.

John draws every day without fail. He has described himself during this activity as “being in a state of drawing.” I gather several things from this spare phrase. John uses speech economically. He is succinct because other languages are more nearly equivalent to his feelings, and, in part, because he is shy. His spoken language is not colorful, but neither is it hyped or exaggerated. He conserves with language as he conserves with water and other resources. He says what he means.

“A state of drawing” is something like meditation, a being with the self that for John is neither analytical nor mystical, but during which he gathers and clarifies those forces which allow him to express himself wholly. In a state of drawing his perceptions concentrate as rhythms and then move through his practiced hand to paper.

The majority of sketches and drawings that John makes are abstract. The “systems drawings” use a series of spaced points to determine a symmetrical design, with roughly equal positive and negative spaces, like Mimbres pottery. Other drawings, done outdoors, refer to real objects in the landscape. All the drawings have in common marks that are both loose and certain, qualities that are only superficially at odds. And all of them, at whatever point on the representational-abstract spectrum, resonate with John’s understanding of nature as both mutable and abiding, restless and enduring. The antecedents of John’s drawings are the organic abstractions of Marin, Dove, and O’Keeffe. Some of his lines rustle as in a breeze; others erode; still others merge like rivulets into streams and rivers.

These word images are from my imagination. Perhaps they are too literal for John. But it is as tempting to describe his drawings this way as it is to conjure figures in clouds, or, more to the point, as it is to believe like Steiglitz in equivalences between a man’s being and the multitude forms of nature. I suspect that what I must name to understand, John intuits. The harm in a name is that it freezes the rhythm of a thing, which may be why John seems always in quiet stride and when he is still, he cups his body around a thing as you would cup your hands over a firefly.

John likes to be and work where nature is active, which can be almost anywhere to the tuned eye. He built his studio in a meadow and watches its cycles from a wall-sized window. He wanders a beach not far from home where a skin of white sand covers black sand, and even a casual toe print creates chiaroscuro. He makes drawings in the sand; some wash away, others he photographs. As much as the gentle east coast hills he likes the raw New Mexico landscape. In that crisp light, John draws cactus from their eye-level with bristly colored spikes that show his admiration for the strategy of their form.

It is this last, John’s belief in the relatedness of form and survival in nature and in the possibility of it in the acts of man, that shapes his perception and sets his work apart from a passive, romantic — he might use the word “rosy” — appreciation of nature. The difference, expressed in all his work by rhythmical kinship among elements, in his drawings by the record of his moving hand, is the difference between a view of nature as finite, to be imitated for its solutions and a view of nature as a process, from whose trial-and-error man might discern a method for his own survival. This is why John’s work is not primarily an art of social action: it is not the what of his work — though the people, places or things depicted can be guaranteed to have personal value to John — but the particular way they fuse that is for him a work’s meaning and power.

John surrounds himself — builds or finds or acquires — with examples of the fusion of workable substance and applicable force. These range from palm-sized stones, to a 15-foot branch used as a railing in the stairway of his house, to the ladder he built of stacked pyramids for his studio. John makes feathery paper and stick sculptures that move in the slightest breeze; installs multipaneled and folded pieces in corners so that they change with the viewer’s approach; uses the finite number of corner-to-corner folds of a piece of paper in combination with drawing to make geometry a mobile experience.

He greatly admires Buckminster Fuller. He loves to watch dance.
The components of rhythm are movement and order. In John’s case, his love of movement is a matter of personality. Order he has studied for 40 years as it applies to each of those media in which he works. He has experimented with the size, shape, and heft of pages as they turn in a book; with tone, perspective, and frame as photographic principles; with transparency, stroke and texture as ingredients of watercolor. So I modify what I said at first. To call John “an artist accomplished in a dozen media” is not wrong, but it unduly fragments his guiding passion. In a sense, John has only one subject, one technique, one piece of equipment, one medium. The subject is fluidity; the technique, integration; the equipment, hands; the medium, sight.

II. Landscape in art supposes a crucial distinction between Man and Nature – that Man is conscious, that Nature is not. Man and Nature have parallel, but separate existences. …nature’s awesome power is mitigated by our ability to think and feel. The separateness permits the artist to locate upon the unknowing planet metaphoric identifications with ourselves. Artists in all media, photography included, invent metaphors for consciousness, and use the metaphors to describe, explain or moralize our acts… Much of John Wood’s photographic works are landscapes. Like all landscapes, John’s incorporate his own and societies’ values. In past work, such as the extended “gun in the landscape” series, John juxtaposed mass-produced weaponry against rocks and beasts, ancient pictographs, the remains of native American dwellings and finely crafted objects such as water vessels and weathervanes. John used the dichotomy between culture and nature to express his concerns as a husbander of nature and America’s ambivalence toward the preservation of nature.…

In the past, John’s landscapes appealed gently for ecological sanity. His recent landscapes are darker, and more urgent. …Kinship of shape, tone and subject also coheres John’s larger grouping of images. The threat of nuclear disaster to the survival of life on earth suffuses a reading of nine photographs John sequenced in 1985. Each of the images is shrouded in dark tones; several reverse positive and negative tones; and several are seen from such abrupt or unusual angles that a first and lasting impression is one of disturbance to the natural order of things. The sequence is an anguished vision, but not a hopeless one.

The first picture, of the lower half of an eagle with an identifying label strung on its talons and dangling on its belly, is a vertical image. The last picture, of a tiny baby scrunched in a car seat, is also vertical. The visual equation of symbols – the first, national: representing great and unfettered freedom (alas, the bird is dead) and the second, personal and universal: representing regeneration (the baby is John’s grandchild) – acts simultaneously to heighten a sense of loss and to engage a sense of protection. In these key positions, nature’s fate is matched to our own.

The seven internal images are all horizontals, and with the exception of the mid-point of the sequence, all are landscapes. The first of these is positive/negative reversed, so that open sky above a field of grasses looms darkly above oddly shadowed, broken stalks. The second landscape, again in reversed tonalities, is a rephotographed collage. A postcard of a Golden Eagle, in proud profile, has been placed on a tangle of star shaped leaves. While the third landscape is in correct tonality, it echoes its precursors in subject and shape. Two trees, tightly grown together, are photographed so that they appear to be falling. This angle emphasizes their roots, which seem like talons clutching loosened earth unable to hold them.

The sense of disorder in the second set of landscapes is even more disturbing than in the first. Now , it is not an overcast field, a nearly extinct bird, one rotted woods, but widespread and profound destruction. The first of these images is another view of the star-shaped leaves. The bird is gone; above the leaves, between them, dusting their surfaces, the air is choked with charcoal smog. Then, the woods again. From dead center of the image, to the edges and past the edges, are concentric rings of energy so violent they literally shake the earth: trees fall helter-skelter bouncing like matchsticks. In the last landscape, a river rushes forward, carrying torn branches over a waterfall that seems to spill into the viewer’s space.

In all of these landscape images, the formal devices are used to conjoin our destiny to nature’s. John has attempted to go beyond identification with nature, even beyond empathy with it. He has tried to subdue his consciousness by moving his eyes and hands in ways that resemble the gestures of things moved by natural and man-made energies. But we are conscious and nature is not. The Pathetic Fallacy does not work in reverse. John, the picturemaker, knows this very well.

The fifth image of the sequence is its core and key. In it, an American flag unfurls across a house. A cast eagle, wings spread, rides atop the flagpole. The stars of the flag look like the leaves; the house leans precariously, like the trees. American flag, family home, bronze eagle – all are inventions of the imagination. They are symbols of the human needs to bond, to believe in things, to shape a world. In this sequence, the symbols and what they stand for, are endangered.

It  takes an act of courage to present sophisticated formal expression as a means of “quiet protest” (John’s words) in this postmodern age, an age in which pictures are litter and image inundation has numbed us equally to violence and to the magic of simple things. John combines simple things – the matching of shapes, the continuity of gestures – to cohere a complex world. For John, the interconnectedness of subject and form, of the natural and made, stands for the possibility of a peaceful coexistence between ourselves and nature.”

[Cohen, Susan E. “The Art of John Wood.” pp. 30-37 in: 4 x 4 Four Photographers by Four Writers: Eileen Cowin by Mark Johnstone, Nathan Lyons by Leroy Searle, Mary Ellen Mark by Shelly Rice and John Wood by Susan E. Cohen. Boulder, Colo.: University of Colorado, Boulder, Dept. of Fine Arts, c1987. 39 p. 9 b & w. 1 color (on front cover) by Wood.]

In the 1980s John experienced two major lifestyle changes. He separated from his first wife to live with the artist Laurie Snyder and in 1989 he retired from full-time teaching at Alfred University, although he continued to teach workshops throughout the decade. Laurie Snyder had attended Swarthmore College in the mid sixties, then married and had two children. In the 1980s she went back to school, describing herself as “An over-thirty undergraduate at Cornell, formerly a potter, …looking for a better way of expressing myself…” I found it in photography. I attended a lecture by John Wood at Cornell in 1982, and was impressed with the work and the man.” More than a year later she took a week-long summer workshop with John where they met and fell in love. Laurie submitted a “Monograph on the Work of John Wood – Artist and Teacher” in 1987 in partial fulfillment of her MFA degree requirements at Syracuse University. This is an extensively researched document with a detailed look at Wood’s biography and body of work. Laurie lived and taught in Ithaca, New York and John moved there in 1987, joining Laurie and her teenaged sons Noah and Benjamin, living in a converted farmhouse in a picturesquely rural setting surrounded by the extensive fields and woods of the Cornell Agricultural Experimental Station crop testing sites. When Laurie was hired to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1993 they began to divide their time between Baltimore during the academic year and Ithaca during their summers, with frequent trips to give lectures and teach seminars and offer workshops at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, at the International Center for Photography in New York City, the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY and elsewhere through the 1990s. They married in 1996.

Each is an artist with their own interests and ideas, and each has developed a uniquely personal style to best express those interests – but they both also share many similar concerns and interests in the same mediums and materials. Both work freely across photography, drawing, printmaking and collage as favored forms; and both are strongly committed to the artist’s book as a means of expressing their ideas.

In a 1992 interview both artists responded to the question of mutual influences:

Susie Cohen: I would like to ask each of you what it is like to move into a situation where you have a partnership with a person who is equally creative. I know that you are both strong advocates of each other’s work, and I’d be interested to know how the partnership affects your work and also what kinds of seepages there are from ideas between you and among you and the way your work looks? What does it feel like to be living with a person who you consider a peer and a creative partner as well as a life partner? Is that fair?
John Wood: Sure, it’s a good question.   Laurie…? (laughter)
Laurie Snyder: I was curious as to what you would say first.
JW: Well, first of all I think it’s very desirable –so far anyway. We’re very compatible. I’m talking about not just in our general living, but in terms of working. I’m very happy to share with Laurie some of the skills that I’ve developed through the years –particularly in binding and stuff like that. And we share images back and forth. I think her sense of work is quite lively and I think that influences me. Well, simple things, like we do share images. Some of my images are in Laurie’s work and some of Laurie’s images are in my work and that hasn’t created any problems for me. I don’t know if it has for her.
LS: I’d say that of those pictures that we share, we also have some that we clearly think of as separate pictures. If there were, say, a thousand negatives then there are probably about twenty percent on either end that are yours or mine. Then there are some in the middle that are general domain. I sometimes think of them as if we were sharing a box of crayons.
JW: Well, for example, we both do use the cyanotype as a gestural medium. You can put the cyanotype chemicals down on the paper as a gesture. [In brushstrokes rather than as an even coating.] We both do that. So there is going to be a certain similarity to the work.  And, yes, there are specific negatives that usually appear in a piece that really works for one of us and we each generally claim those negatives as our own.
LS: It seems to have one’s signature on it, in a way.
JW: Yes.
LS: But then there are others. We have a sort of generic pine tree that it seems like we both use. It’s just this pine tree smack dab in the middle of this big negative… And we have several of the mountain pictures where we don’t even know who took the slide. We used the same camera at the same site and we each took ten or twelve slides. I made enlarged negatives from those slides and either one of use can use those negatives in any way we damn well choose. But there are certainly other negatives that one or the other of us has taken that’s to be in the box [negative drawer] that says “Laurie” or says “John.” And then there are some negatives that just float around… And we ask each other’s permission, too.
JW: For instance, Laurie’s working on some family things. I wouldn’t dream of taking one of those images. If there are any negatives that are just generic images, then I’d feel free to use them. But I wouldn’t dream of using images of any of the immediate things that she is dealing with.
LS: We started using each other’s negatives during our residency at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado. It’s so easy to take pictures there that you could have gone to the drug store and bought on a post card. It’s the goddam mountains just sitting there and the picture looks the same whether you take the picture or I take the picture. The first pictures you make look just like other people’s pictures. You think, ‘God, this is hopeless. It’s sort of comical when you realize it. On that trip we took one 35mm camera, one 2 ¼ camera and one 4 x 5 camera between us and we used them interchangeably. And the negatives sort of became part of our private public domain.
JW: And I’ve been in this type of situation for a long time, because I made negatives of pictures taken by other people in the newspapers and magazines during the Vietnam War to use to create some of my early collages; where I added color or the textures of the collaged materials to create my own statement. I made them until eventually I became embarrassed, because the collages were always reproduced in black and white, which took away all the hand things I did to create the new image and those things were not there anymore and the borrowed images in the piece would pop out at me and I just felt that it was wrong. So I stopped then….

[Cohen, Susie and William Johnson. Audiotape interview with Laurie Sievert Snyder and John Wood in John’s studio at Ithaca, NY on July 25, 1992.]

During the summer of 1992 the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. held an exhibition of John’s work which specifically featuring his concerns on ecological issues and nuclear dangers. Quiet Protest: Recent Work by John Wood displayed thirty‑three works by the artist which ranged across several media. The exhibition contained an installation piece in a small alcove, which consisted of nine willow twig tripods or teepee structures, each with a square of hand‑made paper containing a single printed word, hanging by a long thread from the tripod’s apex. A limited-edition artist’s book titled With What Will We Build Our Nuclear Waste Box? was also placed in the small room. In the main gallery were thirty-two large prints and a second limited‑edition artist’s book, titled Oil and Water, made with acrylic, paste paper, graphite, watercolor and computer text. Both books were open and available for reading by anyone attending the exhibition. There were several diptych prints and one piece, titled “Bird Names,” consisting of seven silver prints and a printed statement, among these thirty‑two prints. The prints ranged from straight silver print photographs to cyanotypes, and monoprints. Most of these works were collages, made with silver prints, applied watercolor or applied acrylic, graphite, etc. Several of the prints were identified as being from specific series, including the Fall Creek Rock Drawings, the Colorado Series, and the Exxon Valdez Series.

Two printed statements were displayed with the works in the exhibition.

“On March 24th, 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground spilling 10 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. On March 24th I made a list of all the waterbirds with the name of a color in their name.
Lawrence Rawls is chairman of Exxon
George Nelson is director of Alyeska, pipeline company (7 firms)
Joseph Hazelwood is the captain of the tanker
Third mate Gregory Comsuis pilots the tanker
And John Wood, the artist, drives his car.

In my pictures
I try to see around
the corners of
feel objects
and touch the
enormity of what we do

I wonder if small acts
can bear on our problems
that is my hope
John Wood 1992”

In July 1992 Susie and I visited and interviewed John and Laurie at his studio in Ithaca, NY, and I published parts of that interview in the September 1992 issue of The Consort, which featured the exhibition.

“Susan Cohen:Why did oil become the symbolic element of waste in your photographs exhibited in “Quiet Protest”?
John Wood: Well, because of the Exxon Valdez event and the fact that we all personally use oil, and that it’s a full circle; which we have to think about in one way or another. And I try to find ways that add that sort of idea in my imagery.
SC: There are so many things that we waste that I was interested in why you chose that one. The picture “Laurie’s Cobble,” with 1/4 teaspoon of oil. It’s astonishing how far that oil goes…
JW: Well, when the Exxon Valdez spill happened it was ten million gallons <197> or whatever it was. That was a specific number, and it was a dramatic act. And it was the responsibility of the corporations, but it was also our own responsibility.
Laurie Snyder:Every time you get the oil changed in your car you’re asking them to throw away four to six quarts of oil. Where does that oil go, when you go to the gas station?
JW: Anyway that’s why I dealt with that topic and I think all of the things I’ve dealt with in a similar fashion are just such a complex thing. But it all comes around and envelopes us and I wanted those things to be in my imagery. In the early series on guns in the landscape, for instance, there’s nothing about that series that literally says I’m against guns. Yet I am, and I feel that those images say that, they say it very specifically, I mean, they don’t say it specifically but they say it abstractly, or metaphorically. And the toxic waste pieces, the works about nuclear waste, it’s the same thing. I list a number of words like “granite,” “glass,” “paper,” “air,” “water,” and I say how are we going to contain our nuclear waste? And there’s nothing that really protests, there’s nothing lethal about what I’m saying, nothing that’s going to solve the problem. It’s just the way I can get at stuff, I guess.
William Johnson: Your imagery refers to nuclear waste issues and to oil spills and issues of pollution and conservation, but you don’t make strident, overtly political propaganda. You have quietly produced images dealing with these concerns, about issues of conservation and pollution and atomic energy and atomic waste for many years now, so was there a specific reason to focus that on those things in this show? Or is this just a continuation of a long‑term effort?
JW: Well, the show itself is a continuation of my work, there is nothing about the show that is very different from anything else I could pull out of my files…
WJ: It’s what you’ve been doing since at least the 1960s.
JW: Yes. The reason it gets kind of concentrated in the show is that I am still doing it, I guess.
LS: Also, you and Jim Wyman (Curator of the Visual Studies Workshop Gallery, and of this exhibition.) discussed whether you could design a show that would be around a central concept to help solidify it.
JW: I think Jim wanted it to be even more specific, but I didn’t. “Quiet Protest” was my name for it simply because he wanted a name, I look at it as an exhibit of my work.
WJ: Can we describe the show a little bit? What do you call these wonderful tripod pieces? Would that be a sitework?
LS: Wonderful tripod pieces, there you go, it’s his tripod installation. It was his attempt to be a trendy artist. (Laughter.)
JW: Yeah. Years ago I did a series of sculptural things where I figured out how I could support a piece of paper in space. I ended up with about fifteen pieces, one of which is this tripod of three willow sticks with the thin paper supported just off the floor with nine threads which are hanging from the tripod. So, when I was trying to think of a project that I wanted to do this was one of the things I came up with. I repeated this thing that I had discovered a long time ago. This tripod suspending a piece of thin Japanese tissue was interesting to me. It sways on the nine threads, and it just stays there. So when I had the idea of doing a simple installation of these things I figured out how I wanted to do it and I went out and cut the willow sticks and trimmed them and peeled them and I did the string and I made the paper and I printed one word on each sheet of paper and I suspended them from these tripods.
WJ: And the words are “Granite.”
JW: “Salt,” “Paper…”
LS: “Steel.”
JW: “Steel,” “Glass,” “Lead,” “Clay,” “Wood” and “Water.”
WJ: These nine tripods are presented in a small alcove in the exhibition. One of the things that I remembered when I looked at that was that there were some air currents or something. The pieces were swaying with a very subtle elegant movement, sort of floating under these very tenuous‑looking stick tripods.
JW: A gust of wind would have demolished the whole setup.
LS: A kid on a tricycle.
WJ: Then there’s an artist’s book there in the space, which you can pick up and read, and it has the same words printed one per page, on graph paper. And this particular work was titled “With What Will We Build Our Nuclear Waste Box?”
LS: It’s quintessentially ephemeral, lightweight, and fragile and yet it’s dealing with things that are supposed to make you feel secure like granite, steel, and heavy solid things which aren’t going to move.
WJ: What else is in the exhibition?
JW: There are two books and there are a lot of my images, collages…
WJ: How big?
JW: They’re mostly in the 22″x30″ range.
WJ: And these are collages with photographs?
JW: Collages with silver print photographs, also cyanotypes and other materials, and hand applied colors, graphite, etc.
WJ: There are words in some of well?
JW: There are texts in some of them. A typical piece is the collage consisting of several photographs of corn cribs so that they have a slight shift of perspective. And there’s a big smear of liquid graphite. The title of that is “How to Hide Nuclear Waste.” And this is an ironic statement, this is where it becomes very difficult for me, because I mean this as a protest. There’s too much secrecy about the nuclear waste. There’s not enough said about it, but what is said is not true or it’s distorted or all the rest of it. So this statement, “How to Hide Nuclear Waste” is about that.
LS: You had another piece that played on the same issue, a collage which included two photographs of paper bags held closed with a clothespin at the top. It was concerned with how to store dangerous materials. In your talks with students and other people you’ve said that you felt that, in a sense, every human being should have some nuclear waste that they had to store and keep safe. It would spread this idea around that we have huge storage places that would clearly wipe out whole pockets of populations that live around those places, but if every person had a small amount that they had to…
SC: They’d be more serious about keeping it. It becomes closer to each of us.
JW: Every one of my images, whether conscious or not, has a number of different levels, for example in the picture of the corn cribs which is about how to hide nuclear waste. Well, we’re also hiding it in our food chain. And the paper bag thing was reflecting on the fact that we’re dealing with things that have such an extremely long life and we’re not really thinking about it carefully. I mean, a stainless steel canister, in terms of the life of nuclear waste, is almost as fragile as the paper bag. And its that kind of multiplicity that I’m seeking in the pieces.
SC: But there is actually nothing that we know of that can contain those wastes.
LS: We have no way of testing anything for the period of time that is required…
JW: And we’re being misled about it.
WJ: But it also seems to me that instead of pointing the finger at the government or something like that, you’re saying it’s the responsibility of each individual human being to be concerned.
JW: Well, that’s the circular thing that I feel, it all comes back to each one of us.
WJ: I don’t think about nuclear waste each day, I put it out of my mind everyday, although, as you say, it is probably one of the more important issues of our time.
LS: But if you had a coffee can that was your responsibility to keep safe from Josh and Susan and you knew that your neighbor had one too, you’d make sure that you both knew where it was at all times.
SC: I’d worry about my neighbor a lot more than I do now, that’s for sure.
LS: Yeah.
SC: But it might create a closer chain among humans…
LS: But, in a sense, what we’re talking about is that nuclear waste is our neighbor and yet we put it out of our minds. And I think that’s what John is trying to grapple with, without chaining himself to a fence at the proposed depot site.
JW: Well, I feel that this is my subject matter in a way that I can’t ignore. I still love to take nice photographs, I like landscapes and I like nice silver prints and stuff like that, but I feel a little uncomfortable with that right now. I feel that if I’m going to display stuff, that it has to go beyond that…
LS: Some of the reasons you work with the nuclear waste issue in particular is that some of your family and colleagues in Alfred are sitting on the proposed site. In fact, your former property is not more than ten miles from the proposed site of New York State’s largest storage facility.
JW: Yes, that comes very close personally. My grandchildren live less than five miles from this proposed site. But also a lot of my friends were willing to be arrested.
LS: They put their lives on the line.
JW: Yes, Bill Perry, was actually arrested.
LS: Yes, he spent the night in the jail.
JW: Blocking these inspectors who were going to survey the site and do stuff to it. Not only in Allegheny County but Cortland County, which is right next door. These people are really battling. And it wasn’t a battle of “not in my backyard,” because I don’t know what the answer to that is. They were battling more that the government has to think more about this. I mean, it has to be solved in a better way than secretly burying it somewhere. I don’t know which official said this statement, but he said, “Trust us, we know what we’re doing.” They don’t know what they’re doing. And there’s no reason at all in the world to trust them, in relationship to things that have happened in the past about nuclear waste and what happens with it.
WJ: But, again, while this has become a fairly pointed and specific issue to you recently, issues of the bomb and gun control have been a long‑standing concern in your work for many years now.
JW: Ever since I’ve been a conscious artist — you know, somebody that’s dealing with ideas — these have been my concerns. And I think that’s one of the reasons why photography was interesting to me. Particularly collaging, that permitted me to feed this kind of stuff into my images. It doesn’t occur in my drawings, for instance. I don’t make drawings of protests or I don’t make drawing of George Bush and make it pointedly propagandistic…
WJ: But you also don’t make photographs of that either. You make photographs of natural things around you in your life. The picture called “Laurie’s cobble” is a photograph of a very smooth oval rock with a drop of oil spread on it.
JW: It was a pink cobblestone that Laurie brought me from Nova Scotia and originally I made a photograph of it and that was the title of the photograph. There’s a little text that said Laurie went down to the beach at six o’clock in the morning and brought me back this cobblestone from Nova Scotia so I had this cobble and I had this photograph that I’d made of it that had nothing to do with nuclear waste or oil spills or anything else. And I felt the need to bring this into the context of the oil spill and I put some oil on it and rephotographed it.
LS: Well, if we had a big oil spill in our yard, you know it would effect us very closely. We don’t live in Alaska and we don’t live on the coast, but if you take something that’s important to you personally and it gets polluted, that infects you. John took an object of love and intimacy and by putting a teaspoon of oil on that particular rock, that act made it more hard‑hitting. It practically made me cry. But then, in the end, the actual rock that the oil spill is on is just gorgeous.
SC: Unfortunately, yes.
JW: That’s one of the things that I run up against because I don’t want to make images that are ugly. I mean, I’m dealing with an ugly subject, I suppose, but I want my images to be beautiful. But this has a long history, I mean Picasso’s “Guernica” is a beautiful painting and Goya’s etchings are exquisite to me, so I guess that’s what the artist does if he’s going to deal with this. Heartfield’s images weren’t so beautiful, I mean he was much more specific…
SC: Oh, but they do have a whole unity about them, it’s that same wonderful thing about the way something hangs together, it means what it means by how it looks.
JW: I guess if an artist is really going to be cutting, he goes and does street theater or protest in some way other than his work.
LS: But that certainly is not your way.
JW: That is not my way.
SC: Laurie, do you deal with the big issues in your work? John directly addresses the big issues although he does it with a bird or a pebble <197> it’s contextualized. What are the issues of your work? It’s interesting to me because earlier we talked about how you both often use the same negative of a pine tree in a picture. I mean, I guess I’m getting to the old basic thing, the picture is not about what’s in the picture, the picture is about what else is going on in the picture.
LS: I do a lot of imagery that derives somewhat more out of personal experience, in that sense, it is more diaristic. I don’t particularly think of it as particularly about me, but a lot of the imagery comes out of really ordinary kind of everyday kind of stuff <197> a tomato that I’m peeling, or making bread, or things like that, but I don’t think of it particularly about peeling tomatoes.
SC: But what’s the transforming process that makes the personal act into something that could touch everybody.
LS: But often, as you’re peeling a tomato and you think, “God, the skin as it hangs off the fork looks like Michelangelo’s flayed skin on the Sistine Chapel that I studied in art history about 25 years ago…” And so I’m sitting here peeling tomatoes on a hot summer afternoon and I think, “Oh shit, I better photograph this thing.” I mean that’s very common for me. A lot of times I can’t make the photograph then, there are seventeen people coming for supper or something, so I write it down at night and some other time I take the photograph.
SC: But somehow the recognition of the small event as representing something larger, or something within the continuous history of art making, that doesn’t disappear, it shows up.
LS: Yes, I think so.
JW: And the photograph can do that, that’s what it can really do, I mean it’s the melding together that comes out of your own experience.
LS: And I’ve always liked that in other people’s work, that sort of attention to the little details that seem as important as the big issues.
JW: I think that could be said about my work and Laurie’s work. I mean her issues are just as important and broad as my issues.
LS: I don’t take on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
JW: But I don’t either.
SC: But the value of life, I didn’t mean to say that your work is less because it dealt with private issues, I guess I was trying to work around what that whole concept is.
LS: I have a photograph where I use strudel dough, the image is of some very thin dough through which you can see the contours of the hand, an old hand. The picture really is about skin and fragility and feelings and feelings of being punctured. I guess I use my mother fairly often in my pictures. It’s handy, she’s around all the time…
SC: She’s got these good old hands?
LS: She’s got old hands, they’re extremely capable woman’s hands that are now very old, a little less capable, but certainly heavily used tools.
JW: But you see, to me, that would be an issue that’s just as broad as a ten million gallon oil spill and I guess I would hope that some of my images would have some of that also….
[Conversation continues]…”

[Cohen, Susie E. and William Johnson. “Quiet Protest: Conversation with the Artist.” The Consort: A Calendar of Photography, Film and Video Events in and around Rochester with Reviews, Interviews and Critical Essays (Sept. 1992): 1-14. 9 b & w. (Office of University Educational Services, George Eastman House).]

John has worked across a wide range of visual media during his career, making work ranging from large painted canvases to small wooden constructions. But one strong constant in John’s art-making practice since the 1950s has been his interest in the artist’s book. He has taught artist’s book making classes and workshops to hundreds of students and he has made more than fifty artist’s books. Most of these were in extremely limited editions – either unique copies, or in editions of from three to a hundred copies. In 1996 he had the opportunity to create an artist’s book at the Visual Studies Workshop Press in an edition of 3000 copies. This book OZONE ALERT, againextends John’s ecological concerns.

The texts are short:

“the other day I read on a highway sign WARNING OZONE ALERT.” 

Miners Take a yellow canary into the
Mine to warn them of danger. The
bird’s collapse alerts the miners to bad air.

I wonder if our songbirds will warn
us of bad air and will we be able to
understand their song?

In July 1995 I took photographs of
The cooling towers at three mile island
And made a list of 89 birds with color in their name.”

This is followed by twenty-seven pages of landscape photographs, varying from distant views of the nuclear cooling towers to close-up scenes of flowers, rocks or rubble found in both urban and rural sites. Each of these scenes has a single line of text, consisting of the 89 bird’s names, printed across the middle of each page:

“blue-footed booby yellow crowned heron white ibis great blue heron yellow warbler,” etc.

The mixture of the beautiful and the mundane, the poetry of the birds’ names against the grimness of the industrial views, sets up a dynamic of attraction and repulsion, and leads to a sense of unease and disquiet that plays out through the patterns and modulations of the pages of the book. A form of communication, which John has pointed out, that you hold in your hands and view at a personal distance and read at a personal rate of speed – in other words, a private, privileged and intimate form of communication. And John sets up a dynamic in his book that is not intellectual, not a reasoned argument for or against nuclear energy – rather his tropes and figures call up an intuitive sense of possible danger and potential loss, a foreboding rather than a prediction, a call for caring concern rather than an argument for specific action.

[Wood, John. OZONE ALERT Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1996. 32 pp. ]

When I interviewed John in 2006, he first warned me with that always almost painful honesty that he had always shown me that he was “slower now” – by which he meant that he couldn’t remember some of the past events in great detail any more and that he also had some trouble finding the correct words he was seeking when he attempted to talk about issues. But the amazing diversity and beauty of his art practice over the past twenty years hasn’t seemed to have been in any way slowed down. So our interviews became sessions where I simply enjoyed the wonderful art that he showed me, piece after piece; while I tried to frame very direct, very basic questions. Looking at some lovely computer prints which had lists of single words incorporated into the images, I asked if he had ever enjoyed Concrete Poetry, to which he responded he had been very interested in it back in the 1960s. Something in the color and line of one work impelled me to ask if he had ever been influenced by Paul Klee. He answered, without an ounce of sarcasm or irony, “Wasn’t everyone?” Then finally I asked the most basic and hardest question of all. “Why do you make art?” John looked surprised, even bewildered by the question; then answered “How could I not?”

Horses, Sea Lions, and Other Creatures: Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken and John Wood, by Susan E. Cohen and William S. Johnson. Belmont, MA: Joshua Press, 1986. 242 pp., 36 35mm slides bound‑in. Limited edition, 16 copies, printed on an IBM‑AT computer, with WordStar 2000 software.

“Quiet Protest: Recent Work by John Wood. Conversation with the Artist,” by Susan E. Cohen and William Johnson. The Consort (Sept. 1992): 1‑14.

John Wood. On the Edge of Clear Meaning.
Text by David Levi Strauss, William S. Johnson and Ezra Shales. Book design by Joan Lyons. Gottingen: Steidl, 2008. 178 pp. 168 illus. [Accompanied an exhibition first co-hosted at the George Eastman House, the Visual Studies Workshop and the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY, then traveled to the International Center of Photography and the Grey Art Gallery, New York, NY, then elsewhere.]

Leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: