Robert Wood North America’s top-selling painter ponders artists, the art business and his own life
Comox District Free Press
Lifestreams section Friday, June 20, 1980
By Joe MacInnis
Robert Wood sits in his comfortable armchair telling stories of his days as a two-fisted commando and a foot-loose artist in sunny California. But, one senses there is a depth and sensitivity in the man, which transcends the picture he paints of himself.
Sparkling humor is dashed liberally throughout his conversation; sometimes he himself is the butt of his own jokes and sometimes the sober-faced art lovers he dearly loves to chastise. But his humor is never malicious nor does it issue from envy. Always there is that bright twinkling, childish delight at man’s posturing and foibles.
Always he keeps the conversation on his days in a British Commando unit and his days in California shortly after the war. He went to California, he says, to become an artist. Wood was 27 by this time but he had been painting since he was 12.
“The war was over and I was up flying one morning wondering what I was going to do in life. I had always been trying to escape the treadmill, the necessity to get to work by a certain time and leave at a certain time, so I decided to become an artist. It was the easiest job I could think of.”
That’s the glib Wood speaking. A little later, at an unguarded moment, he reveals his deeper thoughts on his vocation. “I think it is a very high calling, although I don’t speak very well of it. It demands more from you than you get in return... I’ll give you an illustration of what an artist is,” he says. “Three men climbed a mountain; one was a geologist, the other a botanist and the third an artist. The geologist trampled a flower while searching for a gem; the botanist crushed a gem while searching for a flower; but the artist stood back and appreciated the beauty of both.”
Wood’s paintings have sold in North America and Europe. They are generally sold though galleries in Vancouver and in Washington State, although he does sell some from his studio. In the past two decades his painting sales have topped 3000 – highest in Canada and the U.S.
He describes himself as a Canadian impressionist on the lines of the Group of Seven. Wood was a student of most of the members of the Group and he says there is, of course, a residue left in his work from that early training. This school of art stresses a fairly realistic reproduction of nature but in a broad way, without the detail of leaves on trees, for instance. Bold brush strokes simply convey the colour and impression of foliage.
Wood says people buy his paintings because they like to see nature as it is. He concentrates on nature with a special affinity for the sea. He was even a painter of underwater paintings at one time. He used oil pastels on oiled paper, held by plastic bands on an aluminum sheet for this. “There used to be only three of us underwater painters in the world,” he says. “Then the other two drowned and I’m a real coward, so I quit.”
Wood says he has done so many things that the past is all a blur to him and he can’t remember distinctly what happened in what period. He goes through all his many adventures, telling of course, the rough and ready ones first. The true feelings behind these adventures comes out little by little like a frightened child peeking around a corner:
His commando days in Burma; then after the war when he was sent to Comox to command a commando brigade. The sailing trip through the Panama Canal on the 68-foot schooner he bought when he left the forces. How he made his living painting American yachts for $25 a shot on that trip. The colourful, salty language describing this voyage.
“We went through a hurricane on that trip and when the wind blows the paint off the side of your ship you know that’s a strong wind.”
But when you look and see the strong sensitive paintings on the wall and the model boats, which are his passion, which only a child would build, Wood’s other dimensions appear.
Wood has wonder and admiration for almost all things and all people. His admiration admits helicopter pilots and symphony composers; and even the shysters in the art business he gives grudging admiration. And if not admiration, he at least sees the humor in their actions.
Perhaps the one thing which upsets Wood is greediness and sham. He said there are too many people in the art business in Canada who don’t know what they are doing. Too many who are just in it for the money and have no real knowledge.
“There are too many people here in the art galleries who don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “You have many people doing the “in” thing in the art world. I know personally people who rose from gardener to director of a gallery. Now, that man doesn’t know anything about art. He just began writing a column in the newspaper and he showed in that column, by the way, he didn’t know anything.
“And here I am,” he muses, the twinkle in his eyes brightening. “I spent nearly 50 years in the art business and no one ever asked me to direct a gallery. I never would have,” his eyebrows arch humorously, “but they could have asked me anyway.”
And he has no special concern for art critics. “They are a breed infected with diarrhea of words and constipation of thought,” he says.
Wood has been in the Valley seven months. He came with his wife, a loans officer with the Royal Bank of Canada in Courtenay. “I followed my wife,” he says. “We have to move around a lot because of her job, so we don’t know how long we’ll stay in this area.” He says he and his wife often passed through the Valley and marveled at the way it had grown since the time he was here shortly after the war. “Often when we were passing through I’d look at the view of the Valley from the top of Mission Hill and I always told my wife that one day I’d like to live here. Well, she had the opportunity to transfer here and I advised her to take it.”
Wood says in his family you either had to be a clergyman or an artist. As it turns out he was a bit of both. Although he was never an ordained minister he has always had an abiding interest in theology and has given many talks on art and religion.
His views he says, though, are not received with appreciation by some in established religious circles. He cited the time he spoke in a small Baptist church and noticed the pastor and his wife scowling. “I had no intention of causing any trouble,” he says, “and I didn’t think I was, but they sure looked displeased. I looked around, though, and I saw a few people smiling so I thought I couldn’t be that far off, so I kept going. After the service the pastor and his wife just disappeared. I never saw them again, but the organist came up smiling and pumping my hand and said, ‘I’ve waited a long time to hear something like that’.”
Wood began painting at the age of 12 when a vacuum salesman gave him his first set of paints. “It was during the depression,” says Wood, “and things were pretty tough. My father had promised me a set of paints, but he died before that. I was cleaning office buildings at night with my grandfather, a retired clergyman, and going to school in the days. This vacuum salesman saw some of my sketches and bought me the paints to encourage me, I suppose.”
Note that the above article was almost certainly the last feature interview with Robert E. Wood. He passed away on September 7, 1980 – less than three months after this article was printed.