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