by Alicia M. Colombo
Art wasn’t considered a viable profession for women in the 1970s, but Mt. Airy resident Kay Wood pushed through all the negativity to follow her passion, even after her high school guidance counselor advised her not to pursue the arts. “I studied illustration at Philadelphia College of the Arts (now University of the Arts) because it was as close to painting as my parents would let me,” said Wood. Despite the negative perception, Wood says it was actually much easier to make a comfortable living through art years ago.
“Back then, all you needed were some basic art supplies — watercolors, a T-square, triangle and radiograph — and that was it. I was earning $30 an hour doing illustrations. Now, you have to spend thousands for computer equipment and special programs, and you make a lot less money.”
While her formal education was in illustration, she always wanted to be a painter. “I switched back and forth from illustrations to painting when I needed money,” said Wood, who’s made her living painting and drawing, mostly medical or scientific illustrations, for more than 40 years. “I learned to draw figures, which gave my art a strong framework. The teaching practice of painting in most colleges at that time didn’t teach a student much in the way of real skills. Painting in real life is an exacting practice involving both physical and intellectual effort and skill.”
After graduation, Wood moved to Marietta, Georgia when her first husband received a lucrative job offer. She sold many paintings while living in Georgia, but when her husband’s job took them to Boston a few years later, she began to struggle in a larger, more competitive metropolitan art scene. “I had more trouble selling my work in Boston. I wasn’t recognized because I hadn’t gone to school there and wasn’t established locally,” said Wood, who grew up in a small suburban town in northern New Jersey, returned to Philadelphia in 1986 after a divorce and has lived here ever since.
In the early 1990s, her career was thriving. She had art studios in her home in Center City and also in New York City. Then suddenly, everything changed. ‘I just woke up one day, and my right arm was dead,” said Wood, who is right-handed. “I had a one-person show coming up, and I was terrified.” When the random arm numbness turned into persistent neck pain, her ability to paint was affected. Wood does not know the specific cause of her pain, but thinks it may be the after-effects of an earlier car accident, mixed with decades of repetitive motions from painting.
In an attempt to work through the pain, she started scaling back the size and detail of her paintings. “I began to paint the backgrounds with my left hand and fill in details with my right,” said Wood. She then switched from oil to acrylic, which put less strain on her neck. About 10 years ago, she made the difficult decision to stop painting entirely. “Even handwriting is painful. But for some reason, drawing doesn’t bother me as much except for rare days when I can’t even lift a glass because the pain is too great.”
Wood, 63, started writing and drew inspiration from the news to pursue a new vehicle for her artistic talents. In 2010, an underground BP oil pipeline had ruptured, spewing thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean. “What was often called an oil ‘spill’ was actually a massive uncontained leak into the Gulf of Mexico. It was horrifying,” said Wood.
Nature had been a theme in many of her previous works, including a series of 30-plus large-scale oil paintings. “My work is about nature and how we perceive it. We don’t live within nature; we are part of it. And I think we forget that at our peril,” said Wood, who drew the lush green flora for a gigantic collaborative mural, “Dinosaurs in Their Time,” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
Her love of nature, coupled with support from her husband, led her to take up graphic novels. Wood’s husband and companion of 34 years, Michael Silverstein, is a business writer and former senior editor at Bloomberg’s Market magazine. “That’s why we’re so great together, we encourage each other,” said Wood. “I realized I could make a story out of the struggle for corporate greed over human sanity. Laughing at the world and what people do seems the only way to stay sane,” she says.
After three-and-a-half years of hard work and a successful Kickstarter funding campaign, Wood published her first graphic novel, “The Big Belch,” in July, 2014. It was awarded a Leeway Foundation Arts and Change grant in 2014 and is available on Amazon.com. “The Big Belch” is a satirical adventure of environmental crime fighters. The main characters, Maureen and Monty, resemble Wood and Silverstein in appearance only. “They look like Mike and myself just because we’re the most readily available models,” she said.
The title refers to “a hastily concocted and volatile new oil spill cleanup method” that releases possibly harmful methane gases when oil-eating bacteria are unleashed into the waterways. Wood has already amassed notes for subsequent books in the series. The next story will have a local spin. “Set in Sketchadelphia, Pencilvania, it’s going to be about fracking and what it’s doing to the local waterways,” said Wood, who adds it will be a couple years before it is finished. “All those drawings take time.”
Even though she still experiences pain at times, she’s found a way to work around it. “When the pain gets too bad, I just have to stop. Everyone has their roadblocks. But I’m an artist first. Whatever gets in my way, I will find a way to create art. So many people have far worse problems.”
Reprinted with permission from Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s Milestones Newspaper