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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 18, 2001

Island People
Artist George Woollard also a philosopher and teacher

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Although it would be easy to define George Woollard simply as an "artist," it would be scraping the surface. Woollard is, indeed, among Hawai'i's most prominent fine artists. But he is also a revered teacher and a consummate philosopher.

George Woollard has inspired others to paint for the past 25 years, first at the University of Hawai'i, then at the YWCA and now at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Woollard is one of those rare people who has, all his life, made a living in art. "I never thought about anything else. There was only art as a lifestyle for me. Since I was 5 years old, it's the only thing I wanted to do," Woollard said from a sunlit sofa in the living room of the home he built with his wife, Jinja Kim, also a professional artist, at the back of Palolo Valley.

Woollard grew up traveling. As a young child, he traveled with his family aboard a steamship to Italy where "I loved rummaging around in the ruins. Then Michelangelo got hold of me because of the power and energy in the way he carves."

At 10, he visited an uncle in England near a hilltop pre-Roman fortification. A team of archaeologists let him join them on a dig, and he found ancient spearheads and a brooch. "It was that thrill of discovery. It wasn't art per se, but it captured my imagination."

When he was 12, he went to Mexico alone, inspired by Aztec and Mayan ruins. He sketched and painted everywhere he went. "It was so much fun I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I wanted that thrill again and again. When you're around that age and something gets under your skin, that's what you want to keep coming back to."

Woollard's father, a professor who established the geophysics institute at the University of Hawai'i, and Woolard's mother, whom he describes as "a gypsy who needed her Europe fix every year," kept a Volkswagen bus in Europe. "We would pile in with all the kids. I was the driver, so I looked for dead-end roads so I could stop and paint." His preference was for plein air (outdoor) painting. "I felt a strong urge to be as direct as possible and to be physically involved with whatever I was doing. It's a tangible, hands-on experience. You've got the wind in your face and you're painting out in the rain." The family consisted of four biological and five adopted children. George is the youngest of the children born to his parents.

After graduating from Punahou in 1965, Woollard got his bachelor's degree in painting from UH. He then took a few years off and "hippied out," as he describes it, on Kaua'i. During a 1971 trip to Oxford, England, he had an epiphany of sorts and decided: "This art thing is going to take some work. It's not just going to fall in my lap." So he returned to Hawai'i to pursue a master's degree in printmaking.

"I was always told I had a lot of talent, and that's not a good thing. It's not good to feel you can get through it without trying that hard. That's what was good about UH. They gave me a hard time," Woollard said.

The artist as teacher

George Woollard
 •  Born: Aug. 28, 1946
 •  Birthplace: Wareham, Mass.
 •  Married: to Jinja Kim, artist
 •  In Hawai'i: since 1962
 •  Education: bachelor of Arts degree in painting, University of Hawai'i; master of arts degree in printmaking, UH
 •  Occupation: artist/teacher
 •  Avocation: travel
 •  Where to see his work: The Gallery at Ward Centre, Cedar Street Gallery, Fine Art Associates and Nohea Galleries
 •  Little-known fact: His home in Palolo also is a flower farm where he and his wife cultivate tropical flowers for sale to florists.
At UH, Woollard was most influenced by professor Lee Chesney. "He was an inspired and inspiring teacher. His critiques always left you thinking. He never told you what to do; he just made you think about it." And, Woollard said, "He taught me to think with your hands, not with your head."

This is a message Woollard has been sharing with students — my husband and I are among them — for more than 25 years, first at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and the YWCA and now at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. For years, he has also taken a private class to a different site on O'ahu every Saturday morning to paint on location. His current focus is watercolor painting.

He considers art and teaching inseparable. "I know a lot of art teachers who don't really do art. I feel like I owe my ability to do art to being a teacher. It keeps me going."

Woollard's teaching method involves demonstration, application (each student doing a painting) and critique. He begins every class by painting. As he paints, he reveals his thoughts and philosophy.

"There are times you really don't want to paint," he said. "I chose demonstration as a way of teaching and that process forces me to work. So it was one of those little tricks; you trick yourself into doing it."

Woollard doesn't believe in formulaic teaching. "I don't think technique has much to do with it. Technique is just the tools. But what good are tools if you don't have direction? To me the whole teaching thing and the whole art thing is about inspiration. That's why I do art. That's why I enjoy teaching. I want to be inspired and I want my students to be inspired."

His students concur.ÊMany of them have been with him for years, taking whatever classes he offers, wherever he is offering them. They range in age from 8 to 87, and he uses the same teaching methods for all of them. "I have complete faith in everybody," he said. "To me there isn't anybody who is not a good student."

Real estate agent Carky Ainley recently took a watercolor class from Woollard. She liked the demonstration approach: "He shares his ongoing thought process out loud as he paints. It's great for the students to try to get into somebody else's head."

Regarding the critiques, Ainley said: "A teacher can so easily crush artistic impulses, and he always found something positive in everyone's work," followed by a constructive suggestion. "There was a wide range of ability in the class but he was always even-handed and tactful."

While students who come to his classes looking for a conventional, textbook approach may find the method discomforting, Ainley said, "He likes to stir up the pot and contradict himself to keep himself, and his students, on their toes."

A sharing of secrets

George Woollard shares his Palolo Valley studio with fellow artist Chuck Davis. The two have completed a collection of collaborative paintings.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Students are often surprised at just how much Woollard is willing to reveal in unlocking the secrets of his creative process. On a recent art retreat in Italy, Woollard developed some new mixed-media approaches to watercolor. The next morning he demonstrated the method to his class. The students saw it as a surprisingly generous gesture.

If a student is immobilized, Woollard seems to have infinite means to attack the problem. He might try "directed painting," in which he wields the brush and has the student direct him as to theme, color palette, even brushes and stroke qualities.

Woollard is not possessive about his work. "Possessiveness is a great source of trouble for a lot of artists," he said.

This unconventional artist believes in collaborative art and often uses a collaborative project to get his students "unstuck," such as the almost-heretical idea of having two students work on a painting at the same time.

"Once you've done it, it's very liberating. It frees you up," he said.

He has also completed a collection of collaborative paintings with fellow artist Chuck Davis, with whom he shares his Palolo studio.

Woollard said art "has become this thing in an ivory tower. It's the sense that the artist is alone and it has to be a lonely thing. But that's not the traditional thing for artists. Historically, artists have collaborated." He cited pre-Renaissance times, when art was produced by studios, not by individual artists. The pieces usually were not signed because the names of the painters weren't considered important.

Classes with George Woollard
 •  Call the Academy Arts Center at 532-8741 or, for information on Saturday class excursions, e-mail Woollard@lava.net.
"Another person's view can be very beneficial if you're willing to look at it that way. It's not your project or my project, it's just 'The Project.' For artists to be burdened with this thing of having to somehow be 'original,' I think it's not a healthy thing. I think you actually become more creative and more original when you let go, when you're not so attached to your work," Woollard said.

The artist's current passion is "the emotional experience of color," an idea he will no doubt take to its outer limits.

"I don't think you can really be any good as an artist unless you have a lot of philosophical stuff going on. It's not just decoration to me. It has significance. It is important. And it has value in the long run."