When a professor leaves the academy for his own artistic career
When New York City went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, Thomas Woodruff started drawing dinosaurs. Not like a child might doodle a T. rex, but like an artist drawing a self-portrait. At 62, he was into a 20-year career as head of the illustration and cartoon departments at the School of Visual Arts, and he was beginning to worry that he and his students came from different eras. different. One class did not recognize Picasso’s “Guernica”, but was able to name Forky, the Picasso-inspired spork character in toy story 4. “It doesn’t matter anymore if you’re a middle-aged gay man who’s been through the AIDS crisis,” he says from the same drawing board in his studio, a converted barn in Germantown, NY, where for more than a year he taught via Zoom. “It’s something like, ‘Well, you’re a dinosaur.'”
Woodruff doesn’t look like a failed member of the old guard. In fact, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, he was happily bouncing around his workspace in gold and zebra print VaporMax Gliese Nikes and a plaid tracksuit, his silver hair styled in a psychobilly tuft. The graphic novel he’s spent the better part of a decade working on, a 300-page hand-drawn masterpiece in the form “Francis Rothbart!: The Tale of a Tedious Savage,” will be released in autumn. And he changed his life: like his peers in the Great Resignation, he quit his job. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “I had to be a bad guy when I was president because I had to be an authority figure, but the truth is, I can break down in tears anytime because of, you know. …” He pauses, recalling, as he often has during this pandemic, the loved ones he has lost to AIDS.
His upstate home is a memorial to his dead friends: there are names inscribed on the cobblestones in the yard; a credenza by his former assistant, queer artist Shawn Peterson, who died in 2016 at the age of 49, stands at the top of the stairs leading to his studio; and a framed photo of Woodruff’s friend Frank Moore, inventor of the AIDS tape, hangs above the radio playing the local classic station while he works. Even a recent renovation was only possible after Woodruff sold “Apple Canon” (1996), which features 365 paintings of apples that riff on the aphorism “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Woodruff made the series in response to a question he asked himself every day: why was he still alive?
Like many other teachers, Woodruff is haunted by the questions he found himself asking his students – questions that play in his head as he works. But he may be the first to see his career take off in retirement, as the darkness lurking beneath the hokey surface of his paintings meets our dark new age. When he opened his exhibition at New York’s Vito Schnabel Gallery in March, every cheeky, rainbow painting of a dinosaur included at least one asteroid. “I was thinking about the moment of extinction and trying to ask, ‘How do you go through annihilation with some kind of grace and acceptance? “, he says. An answer can be found in Woodruff’s “Benedict” (2022), in which a T. rex appears as a saint rapt in spiritual ecstasy. And then there is “Martha” (2021), a pterodactyl inspired by choreographer Martha Graham scratching her chest – Woodruff’s version of the Catholic parable of the pelican piercing itself to feed its young. he.” Just as the asteroid strikes.”
WOODRUFF HAS NO children either, although he has formed deep friendships with some of his former students, including tattoo artist Regino Gonzales (who gave him a bird on the right side of his neck) and painter and former comic book artist James Jean (who endowed a scholarship to SVA in Woodruff’s name). Other Woodruffians became graphic novelists (Farel Dalyrmple, Dash Shaw), children’s book authors (Steve Savage, Raina Telgemeier), and fine artists (Anthony Iacono, Mu Pan). Some of its proteges came with bouquets at its recent opening; illustrator Yuko Shimizu, who now teaches at SVA herself, brought her own class. For Shimizu, Woodruff has never been so calm. Her retirement, she says, is a reminder yaku otoshi, the Japanese term for when someone eliminates a problem from their life and the rest disappears. “You let go of everything and all of a sudden everything comes to you,” she explains. “That’s exactly what I feel is happening to him.”
With retirement came freedom, which is precisely what Woodruff was looking for when he began his teaching career. “It gave me a financial safety net, which allowed me to create my own particular works without having the terrors of the art market in my head,” he says. At the same time, Woodruff wanted his students to understand the realities of this market. SVA has no tenured teachers and prides itself on hiring only practicing artists. Woodruff, who did not come from privilege, sees himself as a craftsman and an intellect in a field overrun by noble scholars and snake oil salesmen. He wanted his students to learn the hustle and bustle it takes to be an artist – to give them the kind of education he didn’t get. At Cooper Union in the 1970s, he attended a drawing class taught by Hans Haacke, the concept artist best known for constructing an airtight Plexiglas cube. “I think he took to class like a bit of a lark,” says Woodruff, who honed his craft early on drawing storyboards for avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson and illustrating magazines. and book covers.
In 2000, the year Woodruff was promoted to head his two departments, SVA’s cartooning program offered classes in three streams: pencil drawing, inking, and lettering. Woodruff hired pioneer cartoonists Gary Panter and Keith Mayerson. He brought in figurative painters to teach the basics while diversifying the curriculum, even adding a tattoo design course, the first of its kind in the country. Enrollment grew, the illustration department more than doubled, and in 2020 its students won four of the top five awards given by the prestigious Society of Illustrators.
Through it all, Woodruff continued to teach. Some former students call his practice of having drawing students spend an entire semester erasing and correcting a single sketch “torture therapy,” but the entirety of one of Woodruff’s five-star reviews on the RateMyProfessor.com website reads: “He sees through you. Painter Trey Abdella sums up Woodruff’s style as “non-flamboyant.” He says, “Tom was just like, ‘But why? What is your reason for doing this? Think about this.'” In response, Woodruff said, “It’s a deeply spiritual thing, teaching someone to draw.”
And yet, he was never so focused on technique that he forgot the big picture: teaching people, too, how to live as an artist. Painter TM Davy, who co-taught with Woodruff after graduating from SVA and now runs his own classes there, noticed how Woodruff would do this by telling stories from his own life – like the time he dressed so wildly that Bill Cunningham photographed him at three different parties in one night, or how he learned to tattoo when it was still illegal in New York and ended up befriending Ed Hardy, with whom he then traveled to a remote Hawaiian island to visit the last leper colony, where he stood trembling atop the mass graves. “He was telling these stories to convey that life is a devastating but awe-inspiring adventure,” says Davy. “Teaching people that freedom is possible. Not that it’s easy or accessible to everyone, but that there are works of art that can open that door a little further.
Since stepping down last fall, Woodruff has found that freedom even more: he sleeps, does art all day, and when he and his husband have finished dinner, they watch old movies together. He is making paintings for another exhibition next spring at the Vito Schnabel Gallery and is preparing for the release this fall of his graphic novel with the publisher Fantagraphics. There is only one void left. “Teaching drawing is the only thing I kinda miss,” he says. Indeed, during a visit to his gallery in April, he can’t help but give an impromptu lesson in front of “Nest” (2022), a nine-foot painting of marbled dinosaur eggs. He looks beyond the eggs in the foreground to show how he has reworked the landscape to achieve the effect of a receding desert. The things people don’t notice, he says, are the things artists tend to spend the most time on. Looking at the details in the distance, he says, “The space between the two here is what’s really difficult.