Greg Woodard’s sculpture continues to reach new heights
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the July 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
The phone was already ringing as Greg Woodard walked into his Sacramento, CA, hotel room. It was 1985, and the young Utah-based artist was attending his first bird-carving competition, where he had just set out his entry for display—an exquisitely carved spoonbill hen. The man on the phone introduced himself as Art Bond, owner of Western Wildlife Gallery in San Francisco, and asked if Woodard had an agent. When the artist said no, that this was his first show, Bond was astounded—but he wasn’t surprised when Woodard’s carving took first place in the novice class. Before long, his meticulously carved and painted birds were beating out hundreds of competing entries for top awards at one of the most prestigious international bird-carving competitions, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art’s annual competition in Ocean City, MD.
Since that time, Woodard has moved from wood to bronze and steel, yet even back then, it was clear his restless creative energy would not be contained in a predictable form. Most bird carvers who aim for flawless realism apply fine layers of acrylic washes in textbook colors to complement the bird’s intricately carved feathers and add to its lifelike feel. Woodard’s birds were exceptionally well carved, but he used oils rather than acrylics in a much more expressive, painterly approach. Yet even with its distinctive, unconventional style, his work gained wide recognition and attracted collectors. It still does today.
Since boyhood Woodard has held a fascination for flight, especially in the form of birds. Growing up in Ogden, UT, he was the beneficiary of his father’s passion for birds, the outdoors, and woodworking. The elder Woodard frequently gave his son bird books for Christmas, and the two spent much time together outside. “He knew birds very well,” Woodard says of his father. “He wouldn’t call himself a birder, but he was.” From a family of woodworkers, his father taught high school woodshop, where he challenged his students with creative assignments such as carving chess sets and personal totem poles. Later he also carved decoys and, along with his son, owned an Ogden cabinetry shop. The younger Woodard first glimpsed the possibilities of fine-art carving at age 10 during a family trip to Jackson, WY. A beautifully carved bird in a gallery caught his eye. He asked his father if it was possible to make a living that way. His father replied that apparently it was, and Greg stowed away the idea in his mind. Following high school graduation, he built cabinets and furniture with his father and worked for the railroad as a brakeman/switchman.
In his mid-20s, Woodard heard about a local gathering of bird carvers and attended a meeting, taking one of his early pieces with him. It caught the admiring attention of award-winning bird carver Lance Turner, who invited the young artist to his Provo, UT, studio and offered critiques and tips on applying paint. After earning his first award in Sacramento, Woodard quit his well-paying railroad job and lived in the cabinetry shop for a time to save money as he refined his inherent artistic skills and won more competitions, including several best of shows. “I set my mind to it, and carving is all I did,” he says simply. “I’m an in-or-out type of person; I have to be all in or all out.”
Then, in the late 1990s, clay entered his world. At the time, Woodard was feeling the frustration of not being able to produce more than three intensely time-consuming carvings a year. His work was prized by collectors, but his ideas greatly outpaced the time it took to achieve them. One day as he was sculpting a model in clay before carving it in wood, he realized he had found his new medium. “Man, I just loved it,” he recalls of working in clay. “I loved the speed, the freshness, the fluidity you can get. And birds are kind of fluid; their feathers are flexible. So I was off to the races when I started that.”
Waterfowl were soon replaced by other avian species, especially North American birds of prey. In recent years Woodard has expanded his range of subjects to also include buffalo, Native American and Old West figures, and an occasional airplane cast in stainless steel. The latter is appropriate, since his studio is located inside the Ogden, airport. With finished sculptures (and paintings loaned by Altamira Fine Art, which represents him) on display and large windows looking into the airport’s enclosed mall area, the studio/gallery provides an opportunity for visitors to watch and talk with Woodard as he works. “It’s a little like being in a fishbowl,” the amiable 56-year-old sculptor says, “but it’s good.”
Woodard is also a licensed master falconer, who for years practiced the ancient art of training raptors to hunt in cooperation with man. In the process he gained intimate, firsthand knowledge of the power, beauty, and speed of these magnificent birds. The eagle or falcon’s characteristic behavior, movement, and interactions with other animals have become visually imprinted in his mind, captured and later accurately re-created in clay or wax. Yet even while staying true to a creature’s essence and form, the sculptor continuously throws open new doors of artistic expression through his use of surface texture and patination.
Unlike many bronze artists, Woodard takes over the finishing process from the foundry before all of the mold’s ceramic shell is removed and does his own patinas by hand. He chips off most of the remaining shell with a hand chisel, leaving sandy slurry in the sculpture’s cracks and crevices. Because chemicals react differently to the slurry than to metal, the patina in those areas creates a bright rusty color. Like edges in a painting, it serves to soften the lines between the patina’s other hues. With years of experience, Woodard anticipates a patina’s sometimes-unpredictable qualities, including splashes and drips, and incorporates these elements into the work as he designs. “I’m able to see the piece finished before I start it,” he explains. Combining realism with a loose, organic sculpting style, he often colors parts of a bronze in naturalistic hues while other areas reflect a freer, more imaginative approach. For example, golden eagles, like the one in LOOKS WEST, often have rusty golden-browns on the body and bright turquoise-green on the head.
A life-size version of LOOKS WEST features an eagle at one end of a 5-foot length of railroad track, gazing toward the other end. In Woodard’s vision, the track represents the sweeping, irreversible changes that altered the West after the Transcontinental Railroad joined the two coasts in 1869. Woodard’s home in rural Ogden is not far from the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where tracks from the west and east first met. As a boy, Woodard and his father often explored and hunted near the site. Now as an artist, he appreciates the visual and symbolic juxtaposition of a long, linear, manmade object as a base for the bird’s organic, fluid form. Both suggest speed, he notes, yet in very different ways.
Another source of aesthetic inspiration these days is the look of statuary from antiquity, exhumed after centuries of being buried in the desert. “I really love ancient art, like broken Roman or Greek sculpture,” Woodard says. “Some of my new ones will be like that—broken, as if they’ve been dug up, but with some color. I love to experiment. My mind is just curious, and I see so many cool things during the bronze process.” When molten bronze is poured into the mold for a raptor, for instance, sometimes the liquid metal doesn’t pour all the way to the ends of the wing feathers. As a result, the bronze wingtips appear to feather out. Other times, especially with the porous quality of steel, irregular holes in a piece hold more slurry and create intriguing textures. “I like the natural things that happen. I like to figure out how to do something with a ‘flaw,’” the artist says. “To me, good art has a magic. It’s hard to describe, but I think about what’s really going to make this just sing, what’s going to grab you and make you feel something.”
GHOST RIDER depicts a mounted Plains Indian holding his arms straight out as if enjoying the rush of wind as his horse races at full gallop. “It’s how I feel when I’m riding, and how Native Americans must have felt when they first got the horse. It’s the elation of speed,” Woodard reflects. He experiences that sense of exhilaration on horseback, or cruising across the desert in a fast car, or as a huge bird lifts off from his gloved hand and soars in pursuit of prey. And he feels another kind of elation as he stands in his studio with a sculpting tool in his hand. “Flying the bird isn’t necessarily more fun than creating the bird,” he says. “I experience the flight almost as much when I’m creating.”
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