John A. Wood: From Scientist to Painter

Though the roads taken by artists which lead them to produce creative works can be complex and indirect. The story of John A. Wood is particularly unusual. Wood’s  paintings make up the exhibit “Where, When, and Why,” which is on display until February 28th at the Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education.

Wood became a painter after an illustrious career as a scientific researcher, meteoriticist, and planetary scientist. Despite having no formal artistic training as a painter, Wood created 21 works in a realist style over the past 10 years.Wood began his career as a geologist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1958. Before retiring from the SAO in 2004, he was a committee member on several advisory committees to NASA, including the STARDUST Discovery Program mission, the Lunar Sample Review Board, and the Mission Definition Team concerned with planning a comet nucleus sample return. In 1973, he was awarded the NASA medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, and in 1991, an asteroid was named in his honor.

Today Wood's interests lie not in delving into the mysteries of stardust and distant planet, but in creating works of art that document the everyday reality of places like Harvard, Boston, Cape Cod, New York, Virginia, and France. Wood has transitioned from focusing on a realm known by few to depicting the day-to-day life of the places he has lived, a reality with which countless residents are familiar. These oil paintings illustrate scenes such as city views, a marketplace, and colorful architecture with the realism of a photograph.

At a reception on Wednesday for the gallery opening, Woods talked about his creative influences. “I just always enjoyed art when I was a kid. And as I grew up, I had a career as a scientist for most of my life,” Wood said “And I didn’t have very much time to do art, which always made me sad because I thought I had a certain amount of talent.... When I retired, almost ten years ago now, I thought, okay, I’ll quit science entirely and give art a chance for the rest of my life.”

Set among Wood’s work upon the walls of the Gutman library, the opening reception drew a small mix of graduate students and older professionals from the Cambridge community. The paintings were spaciously mounted throughout the entire first floor reading area, while the refreshments table and mingling area occupied the middle of the room. In this way, Wood’s painting filled the room and surrounded the observers.When deciding on his subject matter, Wood prioritized subjects that he found personally inspiring, over those with more commercial potential. “The things that inspired me are what you see paintings of,” Wood says. “It would be much more strategic in selling paintings if I painted all the same sorts of things…that becomes your brand. It’s a lot easier for a gallery to sell your paintings...And what I’ve done is paint many different kinds of things because many things interest me.”

Although planetary science and painting are not inherently similar disciplines, Wood nevertheless sees a connection.  “There is interplay,” he said, “It’s not something that I have tried to make anything of. There are many situations and things in science that are really very lovely.” Woods also pointed out that realistic paintings can also help to advance science. “There are people that make a career out of doing scientific art. If you go the National Academy of Science in Washington [D.C.], they have big images on the wall that are taken from nature through a microscope [and] through telescopes. They’re absolutely lovely. There’s no shortage of beauty in nature,” Woods said.Yet, Woods’ transition from scientist to painter was not completely problem-free.

“I think it was naïve of me to think I could simply leave science and become an artist and perform at a professional level and compete with people who have spent their whole lives doing art,” he said. “It would be just as hard for a person that was trained as an artist to just then decide to become a scientist. There are just too many things you wouldn’t know.”

Woods’s paintings will be on display at the Harvard School of Education Gutman Library until February 28.  The exhibition is part of a tradition at the Gutman Library, maintaining a gallery that integrates art, specifically local art, into the Harvard Community. Arts in Education graduate student, curator, and gallery manager Ariana Austin says, “We try to leverage a connection and partnership with local organizations and have this be a gateway for students.” An upcoming show in May at the Education School Gallery entitled “Step into Art” will take kids into museums to create their own art inspired by the works they see there on display. Austin says, “This is the School of Education. We really care about people studying the public education system in this country and around the world. So we want their eyes to be filled with [art]... we make it a priority to do a monthly show and an opening reception for every show, every single month without missing a beat. I think it says a lot about valuing the arts and education.” Wood’s work shows that art can an appreciation for art can  come to people with a non-traditional artistic background at all points in life.

—Staff writer Nzuekoh N. Nchinda can be reached at nzuekohnchinda14@college.harvard.edu.

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