Sketchbook: Jeff Woodbury at 117 and Counting… by Daniel Kany

Jeff Woodbury has a shelf in his studio stuffed tightly with 117 sketchbooks (at least, as I write this). I’ve published columns, catalogs and articles about more than 1000 Maine artists over the years, but I don’t know of another artist whose sketchbooks contain more visual ideas than Woodbury’s. His current sketchbook is always with him, and he doesn’t shelve it until every page is stuffed completely with images and ideas. No blank pages. Idea after idea. Image after image. Note after note. Nothing wasted. No leaf unturned.

For Woodbury, a sketch is “getting an idea down to physical form.” Drawing and painting have been part of his artistic practice for 45 years, but at its core, his work is launched by concepts — visual, strategic practice, hypothetical or otherwise. Phrases and notes are part of his process, but the critical kernel is visual thinking. There is a critical difference in contemporary art between “conceptualism” and “concept-driven work,” and this is apparent in every branch of Woodbury’s art.

Woodbury’s sketchbook work comprises an unwieldy blend of physically present ideas with a range of brain pings that reaches to the irrationally other-worldly. He might shift a bean pod to 2D swirl. He might note a red-headed airline attendant as a potential crisis-moment superhero. He might gush over the swollen magenta pinks of a Texas berry pressed into inky service. In a bored moment on board a work-related flight, he might transmutate a pencil into a jet engine… and let it take off on its own path.

From the surface to the deepest depths of Woodbury’s quick-sketched images, we feel the heady brew of his love for historical visual culture as it (generally) dominates and devours imagery of the past as a percolator engulfs coffee grounds. Yet just as often we see the almost meditative pulse of systems art in his sketchbooks: symmetrical drawings made with both of his hands at once, a page filled with lines pulled and limited by the space and time of the process-driven work.

Woodbury is almost bizarrely caught between his reverence for the visual art pioneers before him and the inclination towards individual creativity. He knows them. He learns their lessons. And yet his own path is fundamentally forced by his own integrity-driven inclinations to shift away from where they have trod… onto new ground which he seems to find everywhere, well-seeded and fertile. The easy-ready reading is to see Woodbury as an iconoclast. But considering his consistently productive practice, it’s clear that Woodbury is far more geared towards finding and producing visual ideas than anything else. His personal practice is often ironical and sometimes salty, but through it we see Woodbury as an artist floating up on a sea of ideas – that rare person who can continually churn concepts into robust visual reality.

Below are additional images and comments by the artist. All of the images within this article are culled from Woodbury’s sketchbooks. –Daniel Kany

“I almost always have my sketchbook with me. A friend gave me a leather cover more than 30 years ago, and it’s been with me ever since – my most cherished possession. I’ve filled more than 117 sketchbooks since then, all the same small size that fit inside the cover, which also provides pockets to hold random maps, brochures, stamps, and notes. I rarely remove pages, unless they are finished works, and when I do, I mark the removal, because that’s part of the history, too.

My mind is always churning with ideas, and I need to write them down or I’ll lose them. My sketchbooks are filled with drawings, notes, diagrams, lists, names, plans, dates, collaged pictures, kids’ drawings, and more. The first page is always for names, numbers, and important information, and the last page is reserved for testing pens. It’s been that way for years. It’s a good system for me.

I see my row of sketchbooks as my extrasomatic memory bank, and each book is part of what Zappa called his “conceptual continuity”: ideas come and go, and are not bound by time, but become part of the overall matrix, and an idea written 20 years ago might influence or become part of the current work. Sometimes I’ll look into an old sketchbook to discover a forgotten note, and that might trigger a new arm of work. Other times ideas are written down only to be fulfilled years later –  I drew the logo for “CRUD” in 1986, and it wasn’t until 2014 that circumstances came together to stamp that logo into bricks I made with local clay.

I don’t keep a journal or diary, but my sketchbooks serve as a record of my life. And that includes a record of unfinished works and unrealized ideas, and mistakes and poor choices and people lost to time and distance, and some pages are painful to see. But some pages shine with sketches or ideas that caught there first, and grew into decent works. My sketchbook is the garden where I plant those seeds.”

–Jeff Woodbury, SoPo

UMVA Member Showcase — Diane Dahlke, Gregg Harper, CE Morse, Ragna Bruno-Torkanowsky, Anne Strout

Diane Dahlke

A dialogue with time

Diane Dahlke, “Two Cats, Man, Turban”, oil on panel, 8 x 8, Photo credit: Jay York

My dialogue is with art history, thinking about how my own sensibility intersects and is influenced by paintings of the past. One of my interests is Vanitas, the idea that the brevity of life should lead us away from materiality to more spiritual concerns.  Flowers are a traditional symbol of this because they have the fleeting, magnificent beauty of bloom and then fade and die.

Ars longa, vita brevis.


A Game and A Puzzle…To Start a Conversation – Gregg Harper

Gregg Harper, The Elder’s Puzzle,
Ephemera, Thread, on Acrylic on Canvas,
Metal Hooks, Inkjet Printed Paper on
Wood Frame, 17 ½” X 17 ½”, 2018

Recently I’ve begun to focus more intently on the power of images intertwined with words and concepts. My particular focus is the importance that we ascribe to these as we assess our present against our past and look to other means to guide us into the future in this liquid time. Concepts like “hope”, “will” and “oracle” are at the core of this exploration and The Philosopher’s Game and Elders Puzzle are two of my experiments.

Both pieces attempt to play the dual role of breaking down the perceived barrier between artwork and viewer while engaging in a conversation on the euro/anthro-centric nature of western philosophy (Philosopher’s Game) and the comparison to non-western philosophy and images (Elder’s Puzzle) where humans are generally part of, not separate from, nature. What words, images and artifacts might suggest a way to evaluate each mode of thinking to make it comprehensible to our own reality? And how do we conceive of the human place in all-encompassing life – parallel to nature, of nature, against nature? What are other “philosophical” perspectives on our existence beyond western thinking and image making? How applicable to our daily lives are the concepts that embody the thinking?

Gregg Harper, The Elder’s Puzzle Amulets (13)
Mixed Media, Cigar Box with Acrylic and Inkjet Printed Paper, 2018

The central form of each Board is the “Quaternio”, representing the cardinal directions. Etruscan Augurs used the Quaternio to divide the sky to search for portents delivered by the flight of birds. An archaeologist uses it as the core of a site’s organizing grid system. It is also used as an evaluative graphic by mathematicians, physicists and even psycho-analyst Carl Jung.

The words on each board are attributes that western and various non-western cultures assign to their view of the cardinal directions. The words are the four Greek Elements, four Medieval Humours and Carl Jung’s four Functions in the Philosopher’s Game. In the Elder’s Puzzle the four elements – Earth, Water, Fire and Wind – are shown as well as Native American and Asian human attributes. What do these essential descriptors in both western and non-western philosophy tell us about our consciousness…our perception and interaction with our reality?

Gregg Harper, The Philosopher’s Game Curios (13)
Mixed Media, Cigar Box with Acrylic and
Inkjet Printed Paper, 2018

Viewers can choose four Curios or Amulets and arrange them on the respective boards. The objects could be signs of ritual, remnants of a cabinet of curiosities, alchemical substances, body ornaments…perhaps the birds that fly across the Etruscan sky. And with the formula of four artifacts hung on hooks on the four corners of the board, there are 17,160 possible “compositions” or “oracles” for each artwork.

Gregg Harper, The Philosopher’s Game
Ephemera, Thread, on Acrylic on Canvas,
Metal Hooks, Inkjet Printed Paper on
Wood Frame. 17 ½” X 17 ½”, 2018

The over-arching idea is to spark a conversation within the viewer by direct interaction with the artwork in “analog” form without the use of technology. Like a double use of the metaphor “muscle memory”: to use physical interaction with an artwork to exercise the brain muscle…and, perhaps, the heart/empathy muscle.



C E Morse: Dialogue

C E Morse, Fijoles #41383, pigment on paper, archival inks, digital capture

My images are abstract details of found objects that beg the questions: “what is it?”

which starts a conversation/dialogue.  While grappling with identification one explores the subconscious emotional impact of the images as well as the relevance to previous experience.  This dialogue can be between the viewer and the piece or among viewers.

C E Morse, North Berwick #83, pigment on paper, archival inks, digital capture

I am always fascinated to hear what other people see in my work and their reaction when I identify the subject that I have photographed …. which then starts a whole new conversation.

C E Morse, Old Town #1983, pigment on paper, archival inks, digital capture




Ragna Bruno-Torkanowsky, “Reverberation”, ink on paper, 9.5X12.5






Strout — Statement/Dialogue

For me, making art is definitely about dialogue. It starts with those conversations in my head, inspired by musicians, writers, and other artists. Inclusivity is an important theme in my life and in my art. The “Song of Woody Guthrie” was inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land,” written in 1940. I am still deeply affected by it, especially in the current political climate.

Anne Strout, Song of Woody Guthrie

“Uncloudy Day,” a 1979 gospel song, speaks to me on several levels. I see America as a metaphor—a home “where no storm clouds rise,” depicted here with border crossings and little white crosses. Hopes and dreams, or sacrifice and despair? Let’s talk.

Anne Strout, Uncloudy Day

And what about “Together we make Stone Soup?” This is a very old folk tale about a hungry traveler with nothing but a stone in his pocket. When others contributed to the soup, they had a feast. Everyone brought something to the table—again, a metaphor for collaboration and sharing.

Anne Strout, Together We Make Stone Soup

And “The Potluck”: who doesn’t love and appreciate a potluck? Finally, I am proud to be part of UMVA, an art organization promoting diversity, inclusivity and dialogue in a positive framework. It is a safe and welcoming place to dialogue about art and issues.

Anne Strout, The Potluck