Madeleine Wood’s paintings pay homage to extraordinary beauty in everyday life.
“The rose invites an interior journey – a hopeful vortex of discovery, as folds emerge from smooth surfaces.” Madeleine Wood, a self-taught painter of enormous talent with a life-long hunger to create, rarely expresses herself publicly through writing. When she does, the words resemble droplets of last night’s rain still tucked inside blossoms at midday, distilled globes of intimate knowledge – a beauty doubly surprising since drawings, not words, were her first language.
Wood was born with multiple eye disorders which left her unable to see clearly. Her eyesight was largely corrected by age seven, but, until then, she felt isolated and withdrew. Partly because of this, she didn’t speak until she was four and a half.
Nonetheless, Madeleine amused herself by drawing as soon as she could grasp a crayon. It could be said that Madeleine used her drawing to understand the world better, confirming what she could see up close, by getting it down on paper. With time and encouragement, her drawing became more and more important and soon became a passion, a way both to connect to a wider world and to observe deeply. Now, through her art, she shares her vision of a bright, intensely focused and colourful world in a way few people can.
Where brush meets canvas
As a child, Wood didn’t watch TV when her family did… she drew them as they sat there. “I went all the way around the room until I’d run out of paper.” From her grade one sketch pad to her middle-school French vocabulary list where “there were as many [of her] drawings as words,” Wood grappled with dimension early and mastered realism through quiet, unrelenting practice. She was hooked and eventually graduated to challenging, colourful oil paint as her primary medium.
Although she tried to enter other, less lonely professions after receiving a Master of Fine Arts, in the end, she succumbed to her fate. Her talent was too strong. Today, her Vancouver Island art studio is not only where she makes her living but is her “sacred space.” It is downstairs in the home she shares with her partner, where she recently planted her first garden and where life’s joys and pains trundle through.
She’ll often listen to an audiobook and let the story carry her while single-mindedly painting, “following the tributaries in a leaf’s pattern or all the folds in a rose.” Sometimes, when she finds her own heartbreak too near, she turns off the audio story and focuses on her own. As she coaxes the painting to life, she resolves its details and her feelings at the same time.
“A friend of mine was dying of cancer. Every day, I couldn’t get my mind off it. I painted our energy, our friendship into a peony and named it after her. It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve made. I remember going through anger and a feeling of great joy that we had our friendship, for the things she said to me during our last conversation. I was almost beside myself. I wasn’t thinking of how much paint I was putting on the canvas, I was just following the journey.”
Wood realized early on that what she paints is not as important as how she paints. “For me, the secret is falling in love with my subject. This is how I started with people. Then I surprised myself by following an equally engaging journey with still life.” Common pleasures become extraordinary on her canvases: fruits, vegetables, trees and other colourful, organic items are larger than life, like a celebration of sight. “I seem to want some mystery in the ordinary that I am compelled to capture,” she says. “I am always pushing the viewer to pay attention with new eyes to some overlooked aspect.” To see so completely that the viewer might taste or smell the object on the canvas is a good description of what it’s like to view Wood’s art in person.
Wood shares her vision by leading art workshops, guiding the students toward a very different way of seeing.
“Colour is a very interesting thing that most of us feel our way through. One time, these students wanted to know the exact ratio, not just the composite, but the exact ratio of colours.” Wood balked. “I had to steer them away from that intellectualization, to look at the subject that was laid out in front of them, this still life. I needed them to just look.”
Photography by Hugh Zhao