When a professor trades the academy for an art career of his own

When New York City went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, Thomas Woodruff began drawing dinosaurs. Not as a kid perhaps scribbling a T. rex, but as an artist drawing a self-portrait. At 62, he had been head of the illustration and cartoon departments at the School of Visual Arts for 20 years and began to worry that he and his students were from different eras. One class didn’t recognize Picasso’s “Guernica” but could name Forky, the Picasso-inspired spork character in toy story 4. “It doesn’t matter anymore if you’re a gay man of a certain age who went through the AIDS crisis,” he says from the same drafting table in his studio, a converted barn in Germantown, New York, where he has worked for more than one year he taught via Zoom. “It’s like, ‘Well, you’re a dinosaur.'”

Woodruff doesn’t look like a washed-up member of the old guard. In fact, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, he’s happily hopping around his workplace in gold and zebra-printed VaporMax Gliese Nikes and a plaid tracksuit, his silvery hair styled in a psychobilly quiff. The graphic novel he’s been working on for the better part of a decade, a 300-page hand-drawn masterpiece entitled Francis Rothbart!: The Tale of a Discerning Savage, is out this fall. And he changed his life: Like his colleagues in the Great Resignation, he quit his job. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “I had to be a villain when I was a chairman because I had to be an authority figure, but the truth is, I can burst into tears at any time because, you know. …” He falls silent and, as so often during this pandemic, remembers the loved ones he lost to AIDS.

His home in the backcountry is a memorial to his departed friends: names are engraved on the cobblestones in the courtyard; a dresser by his former assistant, queer artist Shawn Peterson, who died in 2016 at the age of 49, stands at the top of the stairs leading to his studio; and a framed photo of Woodruff’s friend Frank Moore, inventor of the AIDS loop, hangs above the radio, which plays the local classical station while he’s at work. Even a recent renovation was only possible after Woodruff sold “Apple Canon” (1996), which includes 365 paintings of apples reflecting the aphorism “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Woodruff made the series in response to a question he asked himself every day: why was he still alive?

Like many other teachers, Woodruff is haunted by the questions he asked his students—questions that cross his mind as he works. But he may be the first to launch his career in retirement when the darkness lurking beneath the shabby surface of his paintings meets our new, dark times. When he opened his exhibition at New York’s Vito Schnabel Gallery in March, every cheeky, rainbow-filled painting of a dinosaur contained at least one asteroid. “I thought about the moment of extinction and tried to ask, ‘How do you walk through annihilation with grace and acceptance?'” he says. One answer is found in Woodruff’s Benedict (2022), in which a T. rex appears as a saint immersed in spiritual ecstasy. And then there’s “Martha” (2021), a pterodactyl modeled on choreographer Martha Graham that claws at her chest – Woodruff’s take on the Catholic parable of the pelican piercing itself to feed its young. “She’s like a mother who has no children,” he says. “Like the asteroid hits.”

Recognition…Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

WOODRUFF HAS NO CHILDREN, although he has forged deep friendships with some of his former students, including tattoo artist Regino Gonzales (who gave him a bird on the right side of his neck) and painter and former comic artist James Jean (who wrote on Woodruff’s behalf scholarship at the SVA). Other woodruffs have become graphic novelists (Farel Dalyrmple, Dash Shaw), children’s book authors (Steve Savage, Raina Telgemeier), and visual artists (Anthony Iacono, Mu Pan). Some of his protégés came to his recent opening with bouquets of flowers; illustrator Yuko Shimizu, who now teaches at SVA herself, brought her own class. Woodruff has never been so calm for Shimizu. His retirement, she says, is remembered yaku-otoshi, the Japanese term for when someone eliminates one problem from their life and the rest falls away. “You let go of everything and suddenly everything comes to you,” she explains. “I have a feeling that’s exactly what’s happening to him.”

With retirement came freedom, which is exactly what Woodruff was looking for when he began his teaching career. “It gave me a financial safety net so that I could make my own special work without having the horrors of the art market in my head,” he says. At the same time, Woodruff wanted his students to understand the realities of this market. SVA has no permanent professors and prides itself on only hiring working artists. Woodruff, who does not come from a privileged background, sees himself as a craftsman and intellectual in a field overrun by high academics and snake oil salesmen. He wanted his students to learn the rush it takes to be an artist – to give them the kind of education he didn’t get. At Cooper Union in the 1970s, he attended a drawing course with Hans Haacke, the conceptual artist best known for building an airtight Plexiglas cube. “I think he took on the class as a kind of lark,” says Woodruff, who honed his craft early on, drawing storyboards for avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson and illustrating magazine covers and book covers.

By 2000, the year that Woodruff was promoted to chair his two departments, the SVA’s cartooning program offered classes in three areas: pencil, ink, and writing. Woodruff hired pioneering cartoonists Gary Panter and Keith Mayerson. He brought figurative painters to teach the basics while diversifying the curriculum, even adding a tattoo design course, the first of its kind in the United States. Enrollment increased, the illustration department more than doubled, and in 2020 its students won four of the top five awards presented by the prestigious Society of Illustrators.

Throughout all of this, Woodruff continued to teach. Some alumni call his practice of requiring drawing students to spend an entire semester erasing and correcting a single sketch “torture therapy,” but the entirety reads as one of Woodruff’s five-star reviews on the website RateMyProfessor.com : “He sees through you. ” Painter Trey Abdella summarizes Woodruff’s style as “non-buckling.” He says: “Tom just said, ‘But why? What is the reason you are doing this? Think about the.'” In response, Woodruff says, “It’s a deeply spiritual thing to teach someone to draw.”

And yet he was never so fixated on technology that he forgot the big picture: also teaching people how to live as an artist. Painter TM Davy, who taught with Woodruff after graduating from SVA and now runs his own classes there, noted how Woodruff would do that by telling stories from his own life – like the time he was so wild how Bill Cunningham photographed him at three different parties in one night, or how he learned to tattoo when it was still illegal in New York, and eventually befriended Ed Hardy, with whom he then traveled to a remote Hawaiian island to visit the last leper colony, on which he stood trembling, the mass graves. “He told these stories to convey that life is a devastating but great adventure,” says Davy. “To teach people that freedom is possible. Not that it would be easy or that it would be available to everyone, but that there are works of art that can open that gate a little bit wider.”

Since resigning last fall, Woodruff has found even more of that freedom: He sleeps in, makes art all day, and when he and his husband have finished dinner, they watch old movies together. He is painting for another exhibition next spring at Galerie Vito Schnabel and is preparing to publish his graphic novel this fall with Fantagraphics. Now there is only one gap. “Teaching drawing is the only thing I kind of miss,” he says. In fact, during a visit to his gallery in April, he couldn’t resist giving an impromptu lesson in front of Nest (2022), a nine-foot painting of speckled dinosaur eggs. He looks past the eggs in the foreground to demonstrate how he has reworked the landscape to create the effect of a receding desert. The things that people don’t notice are what artists spend most of their time on, he says. He looks at the details in the distance and says, “The space that’s in between here is what’s really difficult.”

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