Thomas Wood | Beauty & Truth

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Is it a coincidence that an artist named Wood paints trees? And is it by chance that he is also the son of a wood carver and grew up working in his family business, a 10-acre nursery filled with plants, trees, and other native vegetation? Ask Thomas Wood if he thinks his future was predes-tined, and he replies wryly, “Isn’t everyone’s?”

Yet who wouldn’t puzzle over the serendipity of his surname matching his subject matter when viewing the pollinators, the magnificent centerpiece of his recent one-man show at Lisa Harris Gallery in Seattle, WA. In the large-scale oil painting, Wood depicts a glorious tree brimming with flora and fauna. Butterflies, bees, and birds commingle in the branches with sunflowers, irises, and daisies in an intricate, intriguing composition. As gallery owner Harris noted in printed remarks accompanying the show, the visionary painting celebrates “sex and nature’s fruition.”

Wood’s bouquet of Mother Nature’s handi-work is considered by some observers to be a culmination of his career. The painting, along with the rest of the new work displayed in the show, brings together ideas and themes that have distinguished his vision for nearly three decades—a career that began with printmaking and pastels and grew to include oil painting in the 1990s. Wood’s realistic interpretations of landscapes, mythology, and his own imagination are inspired by studies of the European masters, the artist says. “Sometimes a social comment, historical reference, or some humor will appear,” he adds.
When it comes to social commentary, the environment is an ongoing theme in Wood’s work. His art celebrates the beauty and bounty of nature while also alluding to the destruction of the earth by cultivation. Nothing demonstrates this duality more effectively than to peruse the pollinators and then study his etching the harvest, which depicts a woodsman chopping down a tree. Birds, a rabbit, a deer, and more spill from the downed branches, and a sense of doom permeates the provocative piece. A dedicated nature lover and outdoorsman, Wood admits that his work reflects a concern with vanishing landscapes and the fate of wildlife. “Art can be soothing and uplifting, but it can also be an honest assessment of a situation,” he explains. And Wood prefers instilling his oeuvre with both beauty and truth.
Even amid the splendor of the pollinators lurks a haunting presence. On closer inspection, the viewer notices what appear to be three human eyeballs implanted in the trunk and branches of the tree. Are they symbolic of a watchful, protective eye guarding the tree and its inhabitants, or do they represent a more threatening human presence? Like many artists, Wood is reluctant to reveal too much about the symbolism in his work, preferring to leave the analysis of the embedded eyeballs and other conundrums to the viewer. “I hate to pin it down—it only limits the meaning,” he says. “There is no hard-and-fast meaning; it is simply expression of life.”

While viewers may debate Wood’s visual metaphors, there is no doubt that his pieces are often informed by his native Northwest surroundings—the source material for his color palette, rural landscapes, and indigenous flora and fauna. In his work, Wood captures a sense of place, even while combining this with mythological or fantastical images. If the viewer looks closely, he explains, there are some species of plants and animals in his paintings that simply don’t exist.

Ideas for these imaginary creatures and vegetation come to Wood while the rest of the world sleeps—the artist has been an insomniac for as long as he can remember. But it is in the early-morning hours that he pulls out his sketchbooks to record the visions that come to him. Wood says that he has no interest in finding a treatment for the insomnia. “I would probably try to do something about it, but it’s how I make my living at this point in my life,” he jokes.

When he isn’t painting or sketching, Wood spends his time reading. As this story was going to press, the artist was excited about a book he had received as a Christmas present, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, a 700-page tome by Richard Dawkins. “It’s about the idea that we are not evolution’s purpose. It’s bigger than that,” Wood explains. Such reading material is not unusual—his nightstand contains numerous books on science, ranging from genetics to physics. “I am not illustrating these ideas, but they influence what I am working on,” he adds. Wood’s library also includes volumes on insects, birds, plants, and animals. And scattered around his house are a few specimens of mounted butterflies and moths that have served as models for various artworks.

While growing up in Richland, WA, Wood dreamed of becoming a scientist. After high school, he entered Western Washington State University in Bellingham with the intent of majoring in chemistry. However, a trip to Europe in 1973 caused a 180-degree turn in his path, he recalls. During the six-month sojourn abroad he visited some of the great museums of the world, including the Prado in Madrid.
Wood was always interested in art, but when he returned home he had time to reevaluate his direction and experienced an epiphany that changed the course of his life. Suddenly chemistry didn’t seem as important anymore, so he switched his major to printmaking. “It was like a sea change in my whole psyche,” Wood recalls. “I was so inspired by the art in Europe, and art just seemed a more powerful thing to do with your life. I read Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and I wanted to ‘follow my bliss.’”
Since that time, Wood has returned to Europe regularly to study works in the great museums. His library con-tains volumes on many of the artists who have inspired him such as Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, and other Renaissance painters. Today, Wood’s own artwork hangs in public, private, and corporate collections across the country, including those of the New York Public Library, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, WA.
Despite the social com-mentary in some of his work and his weighty readings in science, many of Wood’s pieces are sprinkled with his sly sense of humor. For example, bunnies often pop up in his paintings. In most cases, they symbolize procreation or just nature in general. But in bad bunny, Wood depicts a rabbit puffing on a cigarette. Ask him what inspired this image, and Wood laughs. It turns out he has lived with a bad bunny for 10 years—his wife’s pet rabbit, Puka, who’s named after a monster in the classic Russian novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. According to Wood, Puka often wreaks havoc on the artist’s household by hopping into the closet and gnawing on his shoes, among other things. “He’s always getting into trouble, chewing everything up in the house. Lately, we have had some peace and reached a détente,” Wood quips.

These days, the artist is hard at work creating paintings for his next show—a series of landscapes for a presentation scheduled later this year at Lisa Harris Gallery. But he is working with some new themes as well. Viewers will just have to wait and see the finished pieces to understand what’s coming after the landscapes, Wood says, but his painting third flight offers a glimpse into the future. The piece depicts a boy with wings who will become part of a larger work titled creatures in the sky. “It’s one figure out of many, like a close-up of a bigger painting,” he offers. “It will be like the pollinators without the tree.”
Wood says that the transformation of ideas for the next show will consume him for many months. And for this artist, undoubtedly the creative process will include numerous sleepless nights spent with his imagination and his sketchbooks.

Wood is represented by Lisa Harris Gallery, Seattle, WA; Lucia Douglas Gallery, Bellingham, WA; Augen Gallery, Portland, OR; B. Beamesderfer Gallery, Highland Park, NJ; and Galleria Il Bisonte, Florence, Italy.

Featured in March 2005