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.”
For 40 years now (1978-2018), I have been writing about art in Maine. Over that time I have been privileged to visit several hundred artists in their studios. Not only did I learn most of what I know about contemporary art from studio visits, but I have come to regard an artist’s studio as a special kind of space, a place of creation, reflection, learning, expression, contemplation and spiritual renewal.
Artists’ studios are among the most human of places I know. I find myself feeling safe and relaxed in these industrious spaces the same way I do in churches, cemeteries, libraries, bookstores and museums. In all these places, one is in touch with generations of living. In a studio, one is also in touch with the immediate, the moment, even the moment before creation.
In the following paragraphs, I propose to reflect on a few of the artist studios that have made an impression on me and to consider some of the things I have learned there.
Studio as time travel
The first studio I visited regularly was Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn’s sky-lit and woodstove-heated space above his garage in Yarmouth. Up the wooden stairs and under the eaves was a little world away from suburbia, a cheerfully cluttered atelier where Chip painted and taught, read, smoked, dreamed and thought. In his “blue de travail” French worker’s jacket, Chip cut a rakish figure as he stood working at his easel, brushing buckets of color and Mediterranean light onto otherwise Maine landscapes.
With his handlebar mustache and European mien, Chip was Central Castings’ vision of an artist. His absorption of the history of art was such that I understood that when he was in his studio he was as much in the company of Bonnard and Vuillard as he was of the occasional visitor from the present.
That was the 1970s. I got this same sense of time travel in 1985 when I visited portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Gardner Cox in their respective studios. Portraiture was a conservative genre even then, so the sense of stepping into the past seemed fitting.
Claude Montgomery’s Georgetown studio was a rustic, smoky space. “Ash and burnt logs spill from the great stone hearth,” I wrote in a Maine Times group portrait of portrait painters. “The walls are cluttered with portraits of friends and family. Books mount to the ceiling a dizzying height away. North light skylight, ocean view picture window. A grand piano and a grand array of artistic impediments – a bouquet of brushes here, Winslow Homer’s old easel there – command the floor.” I’m sure I must have meant “implements” rather than “impediments.”
Gardner Cox was “a portrait artist’s dream.”
“Wavy white hair beneath a blue wool slouch hat, wild, bushy eyebrows above gold-rimmed glasses. Jaunty green bowtie, fire-engine red suspenders, yellow and black checked sports jacket with a red bandanna stuffed casually in the breast pocket. Brooks Brothers bohemian, Boston Brahmin deshabille, an artist and gentleman.”
The colorful Mr. Cox, a North Haven summer resident, painted in a line of descent from John Singer Sargent. His studio was a dingy, cluttered space in Boston’s Fenway Studios, a brick block of 48 studios that is “the oldest continuous artist building in the nation.”
“Thin, gray light streams through the towering windows that overlook the expressway. At either end of the big room stand commissions in progress – a portrait of Tufts University president Jean Mayer and a portrait of Harvard Law School professor Louis Loss. The portraits seem less in the Sargent society tradition than in the more expressionistic vein of Graham Sutherland, one of the last of the great English portraitists.”
Studio as real estate
Fenway Studios was built in 1905 to house artists displaced when another studio building burned. The venerable Copley Society and St. Botolph Club contributed to the civic effort to aid Boston artists. It is rare to find purpose-built art studios these days.
Artists are ever in need of ample and affordable space in which to work. I have often said, only half facetiously, that art in Maine is all about real estate. The first artists came looking for landscapes to paint. Subsequent generations came to escape the city summers and to find cheap places to live and work. As such, all manner of warehouse, office, factory, farm and educational buildings have been repurposed as studio space.
One of the most industrious studio buildings in Portland began life as the Calderwood Bakery on Pleasant St. First, Maine College of Art converted it to a printmaking studio and then artists Alison Hildreth and Katarina Weslien purchased it in 1996. Today, the Bakery Studios house the studios not only of Wooly Hildreth and Katarina Weslien, but also those of the Peregrine Press, White Dog Arts and Wolfe Editions, as well an individual artists such as Richard Wilson and Charlie Hewitt.
At one time it seemed to me that Charlie Hewitt had studios up and down the Eastern Seabord from Vinalhaven to Maryland. These days his primary work spaces are in the Bakery Studios in Portland and in a converted garage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Charlie, the most productive artist I know, creates paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, all featuring his distinctive expressionist vocabulary inspired by French-Canadian Catholic roots.
One of the things that amazes me about Charlie’s productivity is that he manages to create a large body of work while also managing his real estate holdings in New Jersey. When I first met Charlie in the 1980s, he was living and working in a third-floor loft on the Bowery in New York, derelicts asleep in the doorway, addicts shooting up in the park out back. By the time he left the city some 20 years later, his building housed rock stars and movie directors, and hipster moms had commandeered the park.
That’s the power artists have to transform undesirable neighborhoods, make them desirable and, thus, price themselves out of the market. As Soho became too expensive for all but blue chip artists, working artists like Charlie moved on to Chelsea, Brooklyn and Jersey City. Charlie’s investment in Jersey real estate not only provides some income, it also plays a strategic role in his art career.
“The work gets made in different places and assembles itself here for the New York market,” Charlie said in a phone call from Jersey City. “If I had just the studio in Maine, it would be difficult.”
Studio as mirror of the soul
Over the years I have been impressed by how an artist’s studio often mirrors his/her own persona. Whether Carlo Pittore’s converted chicken barn in Bowdoinham, Richard Estes’ immaculate ballroom studio in Northeast Harbor, Robert Indiana’s Odd Fellows Hall museum of self on Vinalhaven or Neil Welliver’s great barn in Lincolnville, it’s not just the art but the studio that reflects who an artist is.
The wondrous home and studio of Wally Warren in rural Ripley, like Bernard “Blackie” Langlais’ art farm in Cushing back in the day, is a total expression of the artist. The yard of this roadside attraction is filled with whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. Inside the home studio there is Warren’s “Cities of Dreams,” miniature urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.
Eccentric and exuberant, Wally Warren’s world is a Central Maine landmark.
“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” says Wally Warren of his gaudy assemblages of debris. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is painter Grace DeGennaro’s fastidious studio in the loft of a post-and-beam barn attached to her Yarmouth home. The divine geometry of DeGennaro’s art is all about order, as is her studio. When I stopped by recently, Grace was in the midst of a work-in-progress series inspired by Platonic solids. Her paints were all laid out in chromatic order, surf clam shells for paint containers. I told her I hoped she hadn’t bother to clean up the studio just because I was coming for a visit.
“Oh, no, it’s always like this,” Grace assured me. “I can’t work unless everything is in its place.”
Prior to moving into her barn studio five years ago, Grace worked in an even larger space in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
“I loved working there, but I don’t miss it,” she said. “Working at home, I can climb up here any time of the day or night. My work is closer to me.”
Grace said the only thing she misses about not being in the mill is the sense of community, the sharing of resources and ideas that can take place when artists are housed in the same space.
Studio as the best place to see art
Fort Andross, also known locally as the Cabot Mill, is a 495,000 square foot brick mill complex that at various times manufactured textiles, shoes and brushes. Today, it is lively warren of offices, shops, restaurants and long, sterile hallways that lead to colorful artists’ studios. Among the artists working there most recently are Nick Benfey, John Bisbee, Brad Borthwick, Jim Creighton, John Coleman, Andrew Estey, Tom Flanagan, Cassie Jones, Richard Keen, Josh Mannahan, Elijah Ober, Tessa G. O’Brien, Bronwyn Sale, Emilie Stark-Mennig, Andrea Sulzer and Ian Trask.
Cassie Jones’ studio is a long, narrow space with high windows overlooking the Androscoggin. One wall is hung with dozens of recent paintings and constructions in which color, pattern and form seem to work out their own equilibrium. As a young mother of two, Cassie finds she must husband her time in the studio more carefully these days.
“I’m so lucky to get here two and a half days a week,” said Cassie. “It’s a great balance for me. I’m amazed how efficient I can be. I now do in two and a half days what I used to do in four.”
When I tracked down sculptor John Bisbee, he and two studio assistants were busy in the riverside basement hot shop bending his signature nails into a myriad of forms and letters, working feverishly to meet the deadline for his American Steel exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland this summer. The most important thing I have learned from years of studio visits is that a studio is the best place to see art, right there where it’s created.
American Steel, Bisbee’s response to Trump’s America, was an exhibition-in-progress when I visited, some elements completed, others roughed out, the rest to come. As pieces were finished in the basement forge, they were carted in an industrial elevator to the cavernous space Bisbee maintains on an upper floor, a space he shares with several younger artists.
Bisbee’s studio is filled with the earlier work for which he is best known, elegant organic abstractions fashioned from welded nails. But American Steel is a different sort of beast, a kind of socio-political narrative of the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of a phony populism championed by a putative billionaire. The installation features realistic objects – a bathtub with oars, a pistol, a broom – combined with satirical text such as “This is such a witch hunt” and “This arrangement no longer works for us,” all made of nails.
American Steel will fill an entire gallery at CMCA. And when I asked John what having such an expansive studio space to work in meant to him, his terse answer was, “Everything.”
A few days later I got to see Kayla Mohammadi’s Caldbeck Gallery exhibition in its unedited form in the old Bristol schoolhouse where she maintains her Maine studio. Inspired by the title of the film “The Shape of Water,” the paintings take the artist’s distinctive pattern approach to bodies of water, abstracting the landscape through form and color.
Kayla Mohammadi’s Boston studio is in the famed Fenway Studios, as is that of her husband, painter John Walker. When Walker was chair of the graduate program in painting at Boston University, his studio was on the third floor of the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Blvd. Since retiring from BU, Walker has spent more and more of his time in the couple’s South Bristol home and has acquired a collection of local buildings – a school, a store, a warehouse, and the former hall of the Improved Order of Red Men – as studio, storage and display space.
John, who was at work on paintings for exhibitions in England when I visited, is very attuned to the special power of an artist’s studio. In fact, photographs of studios figured in his decision to become an artist in the first place.
“The thing that did it for me was seeing pictures of artists’ studios, of people working, artists like Pollack and DeKooning working in their studios, all that activity,” said John. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
John Walker agrees that the ideal place to see a painting is where it is created.
“I don’t like exhibitions,” he confided. “I feel sad for the pictures in those clean, neutral spaces. They look so lonely hanging there.”
John Walker’s advice to aspiring painters has always been simple and direct.
“You go away and paint some pictures no one has ever seen before,” he tells them, “and then the art world will find you.”
The studio is central to the art making experience because it is where art is born and where it is most at home. For the artist, it is simultaneously a retreat from the world and the place where he/she engages it most intensely. It is a private place, a work space, a place of research, discovery and, for some, even worship. And that is why it has always seemed to me to be such a privilege to visit one, to get a preview of art-in-progress and of the place and process of creation.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance art writer and political columnist who lives in Brunswick.)
above: Alice Spencer, Kasaya#8, Hand printed paper/collage on board, 35×46, 2013, Jay York photo
I have always made things–paintings, drawings, things with clay. Making things as a child never seemed like something I did but something that was continuous with who I was. Looking back I think my early experience with art making was one of the reasons I grew to love ethnic textiles and to use them in my work.
In many traditional societies hand-made textiles are deeply tied to civic life. They are practical and useful but also function as a societal signal system. They create cohesion and provide a framework of shared values. In many of these communities, textiles hold an ethos, a spiritual center. They are an essential source of identity and connection.
Handmade work is not commodified, as in much Western art, but continuous with the natural and spiritual laws of the world, an agent of meaning that informs everyday life.
In traditional weaving communities girls and boys grow up in families with weaving almost written into their DNA, learning to incorporate mathematically dense and aesthetically rich patterns into warp and weft. Weavers are valued citizens and their work is vital to the well-being of the community.
I grew up in a world where, like most of us, textiles were machine made and bought already made into curtains or jackets. My mother didn’t sew, I didn’t sew, and the only weaving I did was to make potholders for Christmas presents. I attended an elite private school where Home Economics, which taught the skills of domesticity in public schools, was considered inferior to the life of the intellect. In college I took studio art, visited museums and galleries, studied art history, never doubting I would be an artist. But at times I felt like an outlier, not tuned in to the ongoing debate about the -isms of art. On visits to New York I began to seek out shows of folk art and a new genre known as “outsider art”.
About 40 years ago I went to Guatemala with my husband, Dick. We fell in love with the women’s hand woven huipile blouses and learned that each village had its own unique colors and patterns. At one point we spotted a gorgeous blouse, but someone was wearing it. The woman noticed us admiring it and disappeared behind a bush. When she emerged (wearing another) she offered it to us. A favorite first piece in our collection, it still smells faintly of smoke, sweat and goat dung.
From that time on we began to travel to countries where we could find handmade textiles. Seeking out workshops and weaving villages, often in remote places, became a way for us to experience each country at a deeper level than would otherwise have been possible. In all these years we rarely have set foot in Europe, the place of my heritage. Its textile traditions are no longer alive; textiles are dusty artifacts in museums.
We have now acquired close to 80 textiles from about 20 countries, including Bhutan, India, China and Cambodia. We bought tube skirts while visiting our Peace Corps kids in East Timor. We found the embroidered tails of a ritual dancer’s skirt in Ecuador, an Akh-nif cape with its huge woven eye in Morocco, and ikat robes lined with Russian chintz in Uzbekistan. Someone gave us a burqua. and we discovered 3 gorgeous Korean bojagis (wrapping cloths) in a flea market in Seoul. I also attended an auction of Jack Leonard Larson’s collection of ethnic textiles in New York. Surrounded by eager collectors, I finally landed a mud cloth from Mali. Most of these pieces, with the exception of those that attract moths, are piled on a high kitchen shelf. The layers of bright cloth bring me pleasure and inspiration every day.
Over the years I also had the opportunity to teach printmaking in both Mongolia and Zanzibar (Tanzania), which opened another path of connection to other traditional arts-centered cultures. Art students in Mongolia, most now living in the city in Ulaanbaatar, revere their country’s nomadic past. The iconic horse of the steppe still is an important subject in their work. In Zanzibar, the women I worked with learned henna body decoration in the traditional way: from their mothers or their aunts. While still practicing this ancient art for weddings and other celebrations, they have now learned to use their henna designs in brightly-colored acrylic paintings.
It was while traveling, teaching and collecting textiles abroad that the idea of re-imagining textiles in paintings emerged as a path for my work. While Matisse called his textile collection his “working library,” for me textiles offer a lexicon, not just of formal structures, but of conceptual associations that provide the content and language for my work. Fold, pleat, pattern, patch: these actions find new applications in paint or collage. Referencing the evolution of textile motifs that occur across cultures and through generations I use multiple stencils to create each pattern. Each pattern holds within itself a small sample of the sweep of history and time.
Recently, I have started making collages that are based on patchwork textiles. Combining craftsmanship with thrift, patchwork has brought vibrant beauty to clothing and other humble household necessities throughout history. The ancient tradition of recycling is now a focus in both contemporary art and daily life. In exploring this form I have been looking at quilts from the American South made from the clothing of deceased family members and at others where quilting norms are subverted and the music of the quilters’ African forbears can be tracked in the off-kilter arrangements of patched squares. I have also looked at Japanese fishermen’s coats, thickly layered with patches, and becoming increasingly warmer and more beautiful through time, as well as the kasayas of Tibetan monks who, vowing humility, follow an exacting protocol as they stitch together remnants of once fine brocades. These and other quilt traditions are the source of my recent work.
By borrowing from an enduring cultural tradition, one in which art and daily life flow as one, I celebrate it and find a meaningful path for my work.
November UMVA Portland Minutes Scroll down for December minutes directly after
(Annotated version for the Journal)—11/20/17
Website: Janice made a UMVA website report. She discussed the challenge with having a gatekeeper structure and the difficulty keeping something current and accurate with that system. She discussed that there were multiple sites for UMVA and the Maine Arts Journal and the newsletter, etc and that it was very confusing to try to track down who does what. Matt Stacey is still the gatekeeper for the main site and Cathy Weinberg is doing the journal site and facebook updates. The group discussed other options for a new page, or something that would be easier to access month to month. It was agreed this is becoming one of the most important next steps for our chapter to increase exposure, information and memberships. (see note at bottom).
Current CTN Open Hours (Gallery is always open during these times)
Remodel Update Leslie reported that the donated carpet for the back room is here, but they are just waiting for laborers to install. There are also plans to repaint the front of the building and get new signage up with the change of CTN to the new name. The UMVA banner was praised as looking really good from the street and even had passersby taking photos of it.
It was discussed that at the December meeting we will do an overview of 2017 and also a visioning discussion for our hopes and dreams for UMVA in 2018 and beyond.
Jan– Gregg Harper/ Mixed Media Feb– Susan Smith/ sculpture- mixed media March– Berrang/ Witte April – Migration Experience/ UMVA Journal/ John Ripton May– Mark Barnette/ photography June– Art & Abstract Truth/ Jim Kelly July– UMVA Open Show (needs curator) Aug– Matt Demers /painting Sept– The Eclectic Vision/ Addison Woolley Oct– The Chair Considered / Janice Moore Nov– UMVA Open Show (needs curator) Dec– Holiday Sale
Janice reminds the group that the show she is curating in October is for Chair-themed artwork and she wanted UMVA members to consider making chair-themed work to prepare for that show.
Who does what:
—All inquiries and listings should still be sent to: email@example.com <http://firstname.lastname@example.org>
—There is is still a gatekeeper/tech head for the UMVA main site. He updates members’ images, and will help with tech problems on the site, but no longer formats listings for this site. email@example.com —There is a person currently formatting and uploading listings for the Maine Arts Journal— the current location of the online News/Events and UMVA Newsletter, the former UMVA Blog page.
UMVA Portland Meeting Notes December 2017
—Report Back by John R: Holiday Sale
—Idea presented: to create a calendar for UMVA events for print and online.
—Email from Janice was read regarding the website update and trying to make progress on having a UMVA portland site that we can manage.
—Gregg H handed out bookmarks for his show in January . He reported all the place he has put the show info and the newspapers that were running info about the show. He met with Bob Keyes/ good media timing. Gregg will be sitting for the show every Friday through Sunday for the entire month of the show.
— John R reported on the April show. Focus on immigrants. 12 artists currently in the works. Performances etc/ Building community. Titi DeBaccarrat/ Kifa Abdullah are involved in organizing the show with John. The show info will be in 5 languages and will display mixed media pieces also.
—Jess M discussed our mailing list and how to maximize our membership. Jess asked some questions about our press materials and the process we are using to market shows. A discussion followed about best practices.
—Gregg reported on the curator file for each curator. Jackie’s e-mail should be added for contact for all curators to be able to access the membership lists and mailing lists.
—Holiday Show 2018/ Next Year: Idea for a “50 for $50 idea.” Each artist makes a small piece for the show and could submit addition works. Have a donation aspect of the show to raise money for a cause. Jess proposed having a holiday show with 3 rooms each with a different price point.
—Can we increase sales in the gallery? Discussion -Make it attractive to come to the openings/-Bartending help for the opening. Gallery Hours / consistent
UMVA Visioning for 2018 and beyond:
-classes from members to share their skills/ raise money/ make money
-each member should tell people and try to help grow the umva membership this year
-UMVA marketing materials
-Another Draw-A-Thon? Political activist art. ARRT. Bring our war dollars home.
-Kids events classes. Provide to the community
-Model drawing classes?
-Set gallery intentions – How do decide how we want to give out shows/ 1 person? 2 person shows? member shows? Which is the priority?
-What is the purpose of the gallery? Can we bring in outside artists and curators? Bring in out of state shows?
-William invited the UMVA members to Hidden Ladder Art Nights that happen each Sunday night to collaborate with artists in the city. Contact him if interested.
-Funding: maybe be able to award artists grants down the road.
Thanks for a great 2017 and we discussed highlights from the last year.