Field of dreams
How a self-taught artist and craftsman defines himself through an elaborate dream set in hand-crafted miniatures
Published: August 10, 2011
Impressed with its detailed craftsmanship, other instructors and children in class wanted to hold the car, turn it upside down, poke and prod it. Fearful someone would drop it, Woods fashioned a carrying case for his mini ride. Modeled after the simple design of a shoebox, the display case was to be rectangular and glass, allowing the car to be viewed from all angles, while protecting it from clumsy hands. But something happened, an epiphany of sorts:
"In the process of cutting out the pattern, I focused on a shoebox. But for whatever reason I elevated the roof," Woods says. "That's the history of Plantation House. I elevated the roof because, for whatever reason, my mind switched from a carrying case to a garage. And as a result, it was on my dining table for two to three weeks, just the garage. Then all of a sudden I got the vision to do a sunroom with sliding double doors. Two glass sliding doors. So that was pretty good. Then I designed the breezeway. Plantation house! All because of the car."
While the impetus to build Plantation House was his model auto and its garage, its roots go back to Woods' childhood in rural Louisiana, where his inclination for both dreaming and building began at a young age. In the cramped quarters of their sharecroppers shack, he'd lay awake in the room he shared with five brothers, sleeplessly fantasizing and scheming as they snored. When the family got their first radio, he heard for the first time about faraway places that he could only imagine — Boston, New York, L.A. — and he'd lie in bed, picturing himself walking the streets of such exotic cities.
His earliest preoccupations were always houses and cars. Lacking pencil and paper, he'd use a stick to draw in the dirt road outside of the house, refusing to let natural (rain, wind) and immediate (cars) destruction stop him.
He moved from dirt drawing to tracing the mail-order model houses advertised in the weighty Sears catalog, before deciding to abandon tracing in favor of doing his own sketches. He found inspiration in his country surroundings — the farmhouses and the sharecropper's shacks, teaching himself perspective by staring down the dusty dirt road in front of his house.
"I would stand out in the road and I would see how the farther away, the narrower the road seems to become," Woods recalls. "I learned how to make a house look like it's far away, like its five miles down the road."
From sketches, he moved on to actual building with his hands, totally DIY-style, creating a flower garden for his mother from odds and ends that he picked up from the nearby railway. By 10, he was creating model cars from backyard mud, using his grandmother's empty snuff containers to shape the wheels and a kitchen knife loaned to him by his mother to cut them out. Woods says he perfected his talents for building in his late teens and early 20s, when he'd use scrap wood to create small picket fences for flowerbeds and gardens. It was also around that time that he decided to try his hand at sign painting, creating a career for himself as a professional sign painter and decorator.
Self-taught artists who create built environments are not uncommon and often can become quite well-known; look to California's Watts Towers and Detroit's own Heidelberg Project as large-scale examples that evolved from roadside attractions into destination spots for tourists and art lovers. Wisconsin boasts a tradition of vernacular artists who transform back yards, whole houses or large patches of land into fantastical art landscapes. While Woods' Plantation House does not match those works in terms of size, the scope of his vision — the detail, the preciseness — is in every way their equal, or more.
"There are definitely people who have such an imagination that it kind of just grabs hold of them, and they see in such complete detail inside that interior world," says Rebecca Mazzei, deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and curator of the exhibit Homeland, in which Plantation House is currently displayed. (Disclosure: Mazzei was once arts editor of Metro Times.) "That's what interests me about all "outsider" artists — the completeness of the vision, even if it's not yet actualized. You can see that when you're looking at the work. He [Woods] was planning this for so long. Being so detailed, he had to finish it."
According to Mazzei, the term "outsider art" — which Woods uses to describe his own work — was coined to describe a number of different types of art in different eras. In the arts, it often describes self-taught artists who toil in the fringes, outside the "mainstream." Woods is definitely outside the mainstream and the realm where art is doted on in galleries.
Mazzei says, "He's driven by something else entirely." And she suspects there are more artists like Woods in Detroit than most realize. "My hunch is there are a lot of artists working in Detroit who have not seen recognition for their work because they're not part of any circuit," she says. "Probably more people in the city than we think have this kind of imagination. It's easy to assume because we don't have the best schooling for artists that that doesn't exist, but there are other ways to become an artistic talent than going to school. A lot of people do it by playing around and being resourceful."
History has taught us that much of the world's best art has risen from a need to be resourceful rather than affording art school. Necessity is, of course, the mother of all invention, and the Plantation House wasn't created out of desire as much as it was created out of need.
And Woods, whose only formal arts education was one two-hour class at a gallery in his hometown, was nothing if not resourceful with Plantation House. And it's when revealing those surprises — the way that trash and junk are transformed into parts of his miniature home, their true form becoming unrecognizable — that he becomes most animated. He takes delight in his audience's surprise, the almost childlike wonder on viewers' faces when they realize that a birdbath is actually the base of an old lamp, a piece of gate is actually a cut-up milk crate. Woods traces his penchant for recycling to his boyhood flower gardens and model cars; indeed, one man's junk is another man's treasure. He sees value in almost everything he stumbles upon; a pile of junk isn't just an artistic opportunity, but also an object of intrinsic worth and beauty. And that's where the vision is.
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