By Randi Jo Gause
"When people who don't know my work ask what I paint, I tell them I make big, abstract paintings that happen to look like birch trees," says Kesler Woodward with a laugh.
From a distance, Woodward's paintings depict the vivid northern landscape and wildlife with scientific precision. But up close, the varied surface texture and unpredictable splashes of color offer evidence of an underlying passion for the abstract.
"I want every painting of mine to look real, to represent the landscape I'm depicting," he explains, "But up close, I want them to be all about paint – about the surface, color, texture and the wonder of art."
Woodward forged a love for both art and his future wife, Missy, during an undergraduate painting course in 1970 at Davidson College in North Carolina. Despite a natural affinity for science and math, and a firm belief that art was the one thing he would never be able to do well, Woodward was nonetheless swept away by the abstract paintings of his undergraduate professor and the contemporary artists who inspired him. His first visit to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. only served to further his interest in painting.
"I was in awe of what I had seen in those first art museums, and I thought that being able to make meaningful, lasting, powerful images that would move people for centuries was at least as ambitious a goal as the scientific accomplishments I'd grown up admiring," says Woodward.
Woodward began painting in 1971 with an abstract piece entitled "Fire," and expanded to representational paintings, eventually fusing the two painting genres to create the unique style manifested in his current work. He describes his finest paintings as those that extend beyond depiction of the landscape itself and capture the sense of wonder conjured by presence in the environment. "I have been using more subjective colors and building up a more active, complex surface to try to achieve a sense of how I 'felt,' being in a certain place, more than just how that place 'looked.'"
Woodward's experimentation with integrating complex colors often stems from a laborious artistic process. "I spend weeks, sometimes, applying, scraping away, modifying, and building up other colors over that image, changing it and responding to it." The resulting kaleidoscope of color infused in each piece is one of a kind.
Woodward eventually moved to Alaska with his wife, Missy, where he now teaches art classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His paintings are displayed in homes and businesses across Alaska, a tribute to the environment they embody. A set of four birch tree paintings depicting the four seasons, entitled "Seasons of Praise," adorn a Catholic chapel in Fairbanks, while four 15-foot wide paintings of a boreal forest hang within the two main ground floor lobbies of the hospital at Elmendorf Air Force Base. Smaller, individual paintings include "Birch Portraits," reflections on spruces in the fall waters of Smith Lake on the UAF campus, and standing whalebones at Itygran, an ancient site on the Siberian coast.
Despite his success, Woodward accredits his talent, not with an inherent artistic instinct, but rather a result of dedication and effort. "I don't think that kind of natural facility counts for much. I think what counts is what you do with it, rather than how easily it comes," he explains.
For more than 30 years now, Woodward has devoted his life to creating art, writing about art and teaching art. His paintings are his record of more than three decades living, traveling and working in the great North. "I think my paintings reflect on, bear witness to, and convey some of my wonder at the beauty and mystery of the far North; its light and its weather, its drama and its demands," Woodward says. "I'd like to think they say something personal and meaningful about what it means to choose to live, to make one's life in this place."