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Life & Work with Lydia Wood

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lydia Wood.

Hi Lydia, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I definitely took the scenic route to where I am today as an emerging figurative artist. Right now, in April 2022, I am in the middle of my series A Shot at Survival: Watercolor Portraits Illustrating What It Takes To Survive Trauma in St. Louis funded in part by a grant from the Regional Arts Commission. I have a portrait on display in the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art in their show Salon des Refusés and another portrait currently in About Face, a show at Webster Arts juried by Ali Cavanaugh.

I have always been captivated by portraiture. My Grandmother was a portrait artist, and my dad would pull out her boxes of pastels from the 1940s and 50s and teach me to draw portraits side by side on my Grandma’s easel from her time at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art. I started exhibiting portraits in several Young at Art Shows at the St. Louis Artist’s Guild in high school, but at that time I decided not to pursue fine art.

I traveled a lot and pursued a degree in Intercultural Studies. I spent weeks at a time up through college living in Guatemala and interpreting on medical or construction teams. For my degree, I lived in and around Chiang Mai, Thailand for a semester. I learned Thai as I rode bikes without brakes through rice fields with my English Students from the local elementary school. I collaborated with another student in our program on an ethnography study on Khon Muang or Northern Thai culture which I honestly found thrilling. Wherever I traveled, I managed to find time to do a few portraits of people I met.

Shortly after returning from Thailand, I married my husband, Michael, who is also from St. Louis. I pursued a second bachelor’s, this time in nursing, while volunteering as an English as a Second Language teacher with immigrants and refugees in St. Louis. I have spent the last 10 years as a pediatric ER nurse in St. Louis. I eventually had two boys, and was rather content.

Through tragedy, I inherited everything for my own art studio in 2017 and what started out as painting for self care, turned into the art practice I have today. I also had to get over my own misconception that I couldn’t be a successful artist if I had young kids. Now my two boys are 6 and 8, and while occasionally they are my muses, they are honestly my toughest art critics. They will tell me flat out if I haven’t achieved a likeness in a painting. My 8-year-old dreams of being an author and an illustrator.

Throughout my studies, travels, and everything else in between, I have always been captivated by narratives. This is the cohesive thread that weaves through my journey. My scenic route infuses my work with a unique perspective. I only hope that I get a chance to paint all of the different series I have planned out in my head. Each face holds a narrative which I cannot wait to explore.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Even my series Moments, where the paintings are more serene, stems from the idea that life is fleeting, therefore you grasp onto moments you want to freeze in time and savor. Because of struggle and chaos, those serene moments carry even greater beauty and are more precious.

Having originally decided not to pursue fine art, For nearly 20 years, I only painted a small handful of paintings. I was wrapped up in motherhood and long nights as an ER nurse. Then in 2017, my dad, who was the one who first introduced me to portraiture, took his own life. I was reeling. I tried to connect with sweet childhood memories with him, mostly centered around art. I inherited everything for my own studio from my dad. As I set up my grandma’s easel from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art and her pastels, which I first used when learning to do portraits, I started grieving with my brush. In the midst of self care, I found my lost love of portraiture.

With two young boys, I first resigned myself to the thought “well maybe when they are in college I can seriously pursue my art career.” I happened upon an interview with Ali Cavanaugh, who is possibly the best figurative watercolorist in the US. I thought surely there was no way she had kids and a busy life with the skill and amount of work she had done. I happened upon a podcast where she shared how rather than seeing them as a barrier, her career took off once she allowed her four kids to inspire her work. That lifted a huge weight off my shoulders, And I embraced the mayhem of being an artist and a mother. For instance, I shot the reference photo for my painting Tandem, currently on exhibit at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, minutes after my youngest had fallen in a creek. He sat in my sweatshirt and the light filtered through the leafless trees and transformed that moment into one of my favorite paintings.

For a while, the only consistent time I got in the studio was from 2-4am after getting home from a shift in the ER. After 10 years as a pediatric ER nurse in a city that often ranked first in the nation for bullet related injuries in children, I have enough PTSD to last a lifetime. One night in particular, the ambulance report was not promising, and I stood with the team preparing for the worst. The OR had mobilized and was ready to take the incoming patient directly to the operating room if needed. I had no control over what crisis would emerge from those trauma bay doors, but I stood there determined to do something to prevent more kids from pouring through those doors. Out of these tragic moments in the ER, my series A Shot at Survival: Watercolor Portraits Illustrating What it Takes to Survive Trauma In St. Louis was born.

So, no, my artistic journey has been anything but smooth. However, I draw from those struggles and they give my work depth. Not only can art inspire, but it can also ask tough questions, and explore topics that are often avoided like mental health, surviving trauma, as well as calling out racial and social injustice. This journey has humbled me and made me the artist that I am today.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Watercolor is my attempt to compartmentalize chaos. By painting on Aquabord, a clay panel, I capture precise details in my portraits contrasted with the final layers which bloom from poured paint and test the limits of my control on the painting. As a figurative realist painter, I am captivated by portraiture and the narratives of the subjects in my paintings. Artist, Amy Sherald, illustrated this sentiment beautifully on the podcast Small Doses with Amanda Seales: “It takes life to make work. If you want it to be important, if you want to be sophisticated, if you want to tell a story, whatever you want to speak to, it takes life in order to make good work. Otherwise, you might be just pushing paint around…If you want to be an artist…It’s about connecting to a narrative.”

Historically, portraits depicted conquerors, wealthy executives, and rulers. I endeavor to use portraiture to honor the advocate, the misunderstood, and the marginalized. The Regional Arts Commission awarded me an Artist’s Support Grant that enabled me to start my current series A Shot at Survival: Watercolor Portraits Illustrating What it Takes to Survive Trauma in St. Louis. News headlines, mug shots, and crime scene tape did not represent the narrative I witnessed in the trauma bay. First, I painted a self-portrait, Self Assessment of Secondary Trauma, realizing that I could only ask others to share their narratives of surviving trauma, if I first painted my own. For subsequent paintings, I interviewed St. Louisans who had either lost a loved one to bullet related violence, or who were advocating for healing and change.

Local filmmaker, Ben Scholle, and I are currently collaborating as each of our projects explore bullet related violence in St. Louis through a public health and trauma-informed lens. I believe that when we pause to take in a portrait, we let our guard down, thus creating space in which to consider the subject’s experiences and their story. In the current social climate, every topic brings out division. My work does not tell you what to think, it asks that you pause and listen to someone else’s narrative. We all have trauma from something. Not only does that shape us, but maybe in realizing this, we can find common ground. Portraiture is my form of advocacy.

I record all interviews with the subjects of my portraits. I listen to that interview as I paint their portrait. I want to convey their narrative, not my interpretation of their story. I interviewed Darren Seals at Sankofa Unity Center which he founded in Walnut Park. He was sanding the exposed bricks in what was once the sanctuary of the church he grew up in. “I scrape each brick at a time, each one of these bricks are souls to me. With that being said, If I dedicate my time to each family that lost a kid in the Walnut Park area, in St. Louis, each one of these bricks represents a body.” This painting further changed me as an artist.

I cannot tell you how proud I was to have Darren at the opening of About Face at Webster Arts. He even FaceTimed his parents in front of If Only The Bricks Told Us Their Stories. Not only had I captured his likeness, but that painting was true to him and his message. I consider this painting one of my greatest successes. Even more so, my portrait of Reverend Dr. Curtis Crosby will hang in the Sankofa Unity Center, the building that once housed the church he pastored. While I aim for my work to hang in various galleries and even museums, I will always be most proud to have my paintings in inspiring places like Sankofa Unity Center.

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
Oh, that question is like opening a can of worms. First, I learned very quickly that we are only as safe as the most at-risk in our city. We think we have far more control over our surroundings than we actually do. No matter how cautious we are, or how closely we follow scientific guidelines, if others around us do not, we remain very much at risk. Finally, the Covid-19 Crisis further exposed the lack of a safety net in the US.

These were the most difficult two years of my life, while to others it may look like my family made it through unscathed. It is unnerving to rush into a room at the beginning of a pandemic to ventilate a seizing patient with an anesthesia bag, only to realize you may have just aerosolized covid particles throughout the room and you don’t have on the right mask because of shortages. To be afraid of bringing covid home to your kids every night. Or in reverse, wondering if you would inadvertently expose your immunocompromised patients if you let your guard down outside of work and spent time with friends or family who were not taking precautions. I had families who lost their insurance when they were laid off because of Covid, and now I was rushing their child with fatality prone asthma to the Pediatric ICU because they ran out of albuterol that was too expensive without coverage. When the pediatric ER didn’t fill with patients as quickly as adult hospitals, our staffing numbers were cut. I braced myself when answering EMS calls, afraid that they were bringing in a bad trauma that we were not staffed to handle. Not only were we stressed as nurses, but so were the kids we cared for and both Missouri and Illinois ran out of inpatient behavioral health beds for weeks at a time.

I resented being called a “healthcare hero” and at times felt more like a sacrificial lamb when my community fought the very precautions that kept me safe. I have loved being an ER nurse. However, I left bedside nursing this past July. I could no longer handle the trauma of working as a nurse through covid, a pandemic of bullet related violence, the behavioral health crisis, and of working in a state that put greater stress on Emergency Departments when the Missouri legislature attempted to block Medicaid expansion.

Regarding my art practice, I realized that painting trauma and working in trauma was taking a toll on me. I devoted more time to self care, and ensured that I always had one painting on the easel that didn’t deal with trauma. I was afraid that taking time off from painting here and there would affect my emerging art career. The last few months have proved my fears wrong. My passion to paint grew. Renewed clarity emboldened me to paint from my heart and from my experiences. After my last shift as a pediatric ER nurse, I set up my camera and shot reference photos of myself in my scrubs, my face shield, and N95 mask. Someday, I’ll paint another self-portrait exploring the last two years, but that struggle is still too fresh. I am more accepting of myself, of my need for self-care, and of my own limitations.

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