Thursday, April 26, 2012

Spotlight on Artist / Writer Jeffrey Woolverton

My first encounter with Jeff Woolverton was at last year's opening night of the Duluth International Film Festival. That evening's multi-media event, which took place at the Sacred Heart, was a creatively stimulating experience. If my facts are right (my memory is imperfect at best), the non-profit organization Life House had a booth at the event. Life House is the only drop-in center serving youth in Northeastern Minnesotan with an aim of helping at-risk kids break cycles of poverty. Woolverton has been on staff with Life House for the past ten years, committed to the mission of making a difference with Twin Ports young people.

He invited me to lunch to discuss the work of Life House and I learned that Woolverton is also a writer. Several months later I was participating in a group art show and discovered Woolverton was also a very talented painter. His painting especially intrigued me so that I wanted to introduce him here. Meet Jeff Woolverton.

EN: When did you first take an interest in art and do you still paint?

Jeffrey Woolverton: I first became interested in art at a very young age – five or six, maybe.  Of course, I never called it “art” since I had no concept of the term itself.  As a shy kid in school, a perfectly acceptable pastime during class hours was to draw things – doodles of cartoon characters, caricatures of my classmates, and the like.  It wasn’t until my doodles got noticed by my classmates and then by the teachers when I began to get serious about it – when I started thinking:  hey, maybe there’s something to this whole doodling thing.

It was fun to get noticed by the girls in class, of course, so I pursued it.  The boys couldn’t have cared less about that stuff – that “art” stuff – so I wasn’t viewed as much of a threat.  And when you’re young and in school, the smartest way to make it through is to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.  It was a safe way of making myself known, of asserting my personality.  Respected but not revered, so to speak – because to be revered is to invite an adversary, was the line of thinking at that time.

I didn’t actually pick up a brush until high school.  My first oil painting was the logo of a popular rock band at the time.  And when the art instructor showcased it on display in the hall before the cafeteria it was promptly stolen.  I thought that was spectacular – that a fellow classmate would risk suspension to own that painting.  It was later recovered.  They never did tell me the name of the student, which disappointed me.  I would have liked to shake his hand.

From then on, I worked solely in oils. Very detailed illustrations, reproductions of photos I’d taken or landscapes – realistic and romantic, nostalgic in both color and contrast.  It wasn’t until just recently – the past six years or so – when the paintings themselves developed a personality, when they began to speak things and tell a unique, original story.  That frightened me a bit, to be honest.  After that happened, I stopped painting temporarily and focused instead on my writing – the latter over which I became obsessed.  During this time I gave away most of my paintings to friends and family – for safe keeping, I suppose.

Do I still paint?  Yes, though not as intensely as in years past.  I now mostly take on projects for shows with local artists, most recently Limbo Gallery with Eris Vafias.  I do find the visual arts an extremely viable medium for self-expression, and occasionally I’ll get the itch to pick up the brush again and attack a canvas to that aim.  That said, today if I have a deliberate mind to express an idea or concept through art, nine times out of ten I choose the written word.

EN: You’ve self-published how many books and what are you working on now?

JW: To date, I’ve published three projects through Black Umbrella Books:

·         Given in to the…Blue Feelin’ (poetry, published August 2007)
·         Apples of Arcadia (novel, published March 2008)
·         Octopus Moons vol. 1 (poetry, published September 2009)

The past few years, I’ve focused primarily on projects related to grant writing – not for Black Umbrella Books, but on assignment for a local nonprofit.  It is very rewarding work, taking part in a community project that is meaningful in a “sustainability” sort of way.  I enjoy it immensely.

Creatively, I am writing mostly poetry these days.  As with grant writing, in poetry one must be impactful through brevity, concise and focused wordplay.  I have learned to take great pleasure in communicating a rather intense and complex idea with as few words as possible – without sacrificing meaning or connection with the reader.  I believe that is the essence of writing – to maintain a level of honesty and brevity through expression without risking one’s humanness in the process.  Truly, a difficult thing to accomplish at times.

As for Black Umbrella Books – I’m looking into a few projects.  I’d like to publish a volume of new poetry as soon as I can get the themes and words to align appropriately.  That should happen this year, I predict.  I’d also like to publish a second novel before I reach the age of forty.

EN: Which is harder, being a writer or a painter and why?

JW: It’s difficult to say which is harder – writing or painting – because the act of expression itself can be a very hard thing to do in a successful, meaningful way.  As with most tasks, the more often a barrier is tackled and overcome, the easier it becomes when that same barrier rears itself again.  I don’t feel this process is different for writing, painting, music, sculpture, culinary, papier-mâché or otherwise.  In all these mediums and methods, the common link is a near-sadistic discipline.

In pondering this question, I am reminded of a quote by author Henry Miller – from Tropic of Capricorn, I believe – wherein he likens the creative process to that of peeling away the layers of an onion.  Imagining oneself as the onion, initially the peeling of layers is excruciatingly painful, so much that it takes great courage to continue the process.  Over time, the peeling becomes less and less painful with each layer – finally to the point where it becomes enjoyable, a thing to look toward with fond anticipation.  That sums up fairly well the seasoned artisan, me thinks.

EN: In what ways are art and creativity good for this community?

JW: As human beings, individuals or groups, we all need in some form a creative outlet to celebrate our humanness, to express our unique thoughts and ideas – however insane or half-cracked those ideas may be.  Without the ability to exercise this very basic human need, history reveals, we as humans return to the basest of tendencies the likes of which exist within the insect world.

Paying attention to the progression of art since the mid-nineteenth century, this idea of the need for creative expression has remained the central theme to each important artistic movement from the Impressionists and Fauves to the Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists – at last culminating (however awkward) in Postmodernism.  If one examines even closer each movement, it becomes apparent that it’s not the product itself which is essentially important – but rather, it’s the attitude and process through which the product, the art, is achieved.

Within the context of community:  art – or, more appropriately, artistic expression – is essential to give rise to a collective consciousness, incorporated by the individuals, which in turn gives meaning and purpose to the life experiences of a locale and people.  The result of this creative process, if it be ongoing and allowed to develop – is a bond which is strengthened by and itself strengthens the goals and achievements of all current and future community members.

This process begins and ends – is indeed cyclical – with the positive development of youth.  In fact, the vibrancy and health of a community is demonstrated by the happiness – the creativity – it promotes inside its own children and youth.  Without this, a community instead promotes the opposite, which is akin to the cold senselessness of the automaton and the machines.

EN: Did you try to make straight A’s in school?

JW: I may have tried at one point. Stronger for me, I remember, was the fear of failing rather than the striving toward success – if success can be equated with making straight A’s.  I actually achieved straight A’s only once in high school – my senior year.  Like anything, there is a trick to getting A’s in school.  Once I learned the trick (more having to do with personality, less with academic ability), the actual A itself ceased to be the end-all.  I also got straight A’s in college a couple of times, to see if the method applied at a higher educational level.  It does.

After I’d discovered the methodology behind the grading system, the “thrill’ in getting all A’s escaped me.  I had grasped the golden apple, as it were.  Since then, the most important thing for me has become the substance of the experience, as opposed to the results.  Again, the “creative process vs. the product” thing….

EN: If you could change one thing about the Twin Ports, what would it be?

JW: I would like to see more street vendors – perhaps a traveling burrito bus or a falafel cart.

EN: Thank you for your time. And for your efforts on behalf of Twin Ports youth.

All images here are paintings by Jeffrey Woolverton with exception of my photo portrait of the artist/writer at top left. Click images to enlarge

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