John Woods was an artistic prodigy. As a boy, he scribbled on the walls of his family’s Boulder home, and his mother didn’t erase his marks. When he was only 2 years old, he drew a highly detailed picture his mother saved for him.
“It’s an artist holding a palette,” says Woods, still in possession of his toddler sketch, framed.
The family relocated from Colorado to a suburb of Chicago, the setting of Woods’ earliest artistic memory.
“My first-grade teacher was so excited about what I was drawing and painting that she set up a little studio for me in the classroom,” he says. “When we had down time during breaks from reading, writing and arithmetic, she put me over there so I could play artist.”
Woods did not study art formally, but in high school each summer he worked as a junior intern to art collectors.
“I had a fantastic opportunity because I spent summers around artists and other collectors,” he says. “I’d run errands, go to galleries to uncrate work, and I was visiting museums. It was like my little PhD.”
In the 1980s, Woods returned to Colorado, and stayed, in part, for the light.
“As a visual artist, I tend to like crisp light versus soft light. The light in Colorado with our clear skies provides harsh contrast. Most days are sunny, and anywhere farther east quickly turns into a haze under the sky that gets cloudier and cloudier,” he says.
“Our clear blue skies and vistas are amazing. And you can’t beat our sunrises and sunsets. I look at the sky at the right time and it’s a gift and then gone in two minutes.”
Woods primarily paints contemporary still lifes. And he emphasizes the word “still.”
He says, “My mind is probably overactive. I’m very busy in my day-to-day activities, and still-life painting is almost like a meditative practice. It makes me really stop and focus. On something very detailed, I’m hyper-focused, and it calms me down.”
He paints mostly in oils, but sometimes acrylics, on both canvas and board. Woods’ subject matter includes everyday objects such as brown paper bags, rubber band balls and eggshells, but he often opts for florals inspired by his mother, Marion Woods, and his wife, Sandra Woods.
His mother—now in her 80s—served on the Denver Botanic Gardens board and arranged flowers for the Denver Art Museum.
“She was quite a mover and shaker, and a passionate gardener and home decorator. She had a very unique eye and presentation. I was enslaved to her garden before I could go out to play,” he jokes. “She had amazing gardens in Castle Pines and Cherry Hills where they lived, and she always had fresh flowers and arrangements in our house. I think my love of florals is a response to her.”
Woods paints Dutch master-inspired bouquets. He also depicts flowers in unusual vases—rusty Pennzoil cans, for example.
“The quirkiness has a lot to do with my muse: my wife. She’s a very unusual person. She’ll set up funny vignettes. My flowers in soda bottles are inspired by her because she set up on our antique Chippendale dining room table vintage bottles with Gerbera daisies in them. I thought they looked amazing, and the next thing I knew, I was painting the series.”
His process varies, depending upon what he’s working on at the time.
“I have a split personality on process. It’s convoluted. If I’m drawing, it’s all stream of consciousness. I grab a pen and start a line, and it becomes something,” he says. “If I’m painting, it’s the total opposite. I have a very clear and exact idea of what I’m going to do before it hits the canvas. If I’m illustrating children’s books, it’s like a movie in my mind that I see like a cartoon, so what I’m doing with my hand is responding to something I’ve seen in my head.”
For inspiration, Woods frequently looks to architecture.
“Environments and space are very exciting to me. That brings out the artist in me,” he says.
He also collects inspiring images by the thousands.
“I’m always looking, always observing,” he says.
In Woods’ mind, art serves to elevate humanity.
“When art is really good, it inspires us to be better versions of ourselves,” he says. “That’s true of a good movie, good music and good visual imagery. I like the way painting can influence an environment.”
Much of Woods’ work is commissioned.
“When people are interested in my art, I say, ‘I’d love to see your space.’ Then I get all kinds of ideas. I present ideas and go from there,” he says.
“The collaborative spark really excites me. For me, a lot of the fun is the interaction with people, clients. I don’t like to be too far away from that. If I’m just selling art on a website, that’s not exciting. I don’t get to know people. Or if I’m just in a gallery, it’s almost like sitting in an empty room and being told to paint. It’s not inspiring. My art is still the way I connect with people.”
And his art provides a way for Woods to connect deeply with himself.
“I always thought for most of my life—and it’s still a temptation—that achievement leads to fulfillment. It doesn’t. Achievement leads to more achievement. The next thing and the next thing, and it’s never-ending. You’re never quite there,” he says.
“The foundation of fulfillment is gratitude. And being content is an entirely different thing. I struggle with it, but find better balance there,” he says. “Artistic practice is fulfillment.”
Woods referred back to the prophetic work he did at age 2, his drawing of the artist.
“That’s how I want to go,” he says, “with a brush in my hand.”
Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to Colorado Expression and many other publications, has won numerous awards for her writing.
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