CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: Living art-fully in small-town Ontario

By Scott Williams/Quinte Arts Council

Oh, those face masks!

You don t go far in Madoc, Ont., without seeing them: at the LCBO, Foodland, Home Hardware – and on people just walking down the street. Eye-popping colour and painstaking attention to detail: the hallmarks of their creator, artist Diane Woodward.

A cancer diagnosis and successful treatment in late 2019 left Woodward feeling grateful and wanting to give back. When the pandemic hit, she hesitated only briefly before completely upending her life: after painting every day for 44 years, she stopped cold turkey and began sewing masks: “What better thing could I do for my medical friends than help people not get sick?”

She’s now made well over 3,000 and has given most away for free – just shy of 2,000 in Madoc (posted population of 1,350) alone. Perhaps no coincidence that the village has been left largely unscathed as the pandemic swirls around it.

The woman does nothing by half measure. At the age of five she was already an active craftsperson, and by seven was selling marionettes and paper flowers through a boutique in Old Montreal – once staying up till 2:00 am on a school night to complete an unexpected midweek order for 125 flowers.

“Studying art at Dawson College and Concordia University was an accelerator,” getting her through 25 years of garbage in 5 years.”

Building her career over the subsequent two decades in Ottawa, she describes herself as relentless “and completely uncompromising,” building a body of work numbering in the thousands of pieces, while also co[1]owning one gallery and helping manage another.

A resident of Madoc since 1999, she describes herself as calmer now – but still works up to 18 hours a day.

“I’m a shark,” she says. “If I stop, I drown.”

Understandable, then, that #LabourIntensiveArt is one of her favourite hashtags on Instagram, her preferred social media outlet. Her work is immensely varied – from tiny wooden items that look like refugees from an eccentric, erotic chess game, to enormous painted tableaus on wood or canvas.

Each item is unique, but immediately identifiable as Woodwardian. Animals feature prominently, as do many Hindu deities, reflecting her profound respect for that faith tradition. (She has painted in ashrams and temples around the world, and has taught yoga in her own studio for years.) Her art is hypnotic and endlessly fascinating, managing to be both in-your-face and mystical at the same time.

“I’m comfortable with paradox,” she says, laughing. “Colour is everywhere: startling reds, yellows, and purples explode from the canvas. Whether a piece is large or small, it needs to suck all the energy in the room and blast it back at you.”

“Being in a room with her art is both challenging and invigorating, engaging you intellectually and on a more elemental, gut level.”

That engagement is, of course, deliberate, and Woodward has high expectations for her work.

“When normal people go into therapy they want to be happy; when artists go in they want to save the world,” she says, in an admission, perhaps, that she is anything but normal.

“Saving the world is a high bar, but I don’t want to do something frivolous. Every time I make a painting there’s huge pressure to do something that makes a difference. I want to show people things they haven’t seen before.”

Her process to get there is immersive. Virtually every surface in her home is painted, every wall adorned with past work. For all that she paints to inspire others, she also paints for herself.

“I’m looking for magic,” she says.

She cheerfully admits that once she’s begun work on a piece, she can be obsessive. She literally sleeps with her works-in-progress, carrying smaller pieces up to the bedroom, and sleeping in her studio with larger pieces: I live with my stuff. It’s got to be the last thing I see and the first thing I see.”

That process has occasionally posed challenges for personal relationships. Partners, she says, have to be comfortable with someone looking over their shoulder.

Woodward describes herself first and foremost as a painter but is also a skilled woodworker, and brings the two together in one of her latest approaches, which she calls distillationism: “I take everything that I’ ve done, distill it into 1”x6” ingots, and then I put it all together.”

The finished assemblages strikingly combine abstract and realistic imagery in the same piece. Artwork and frame flow one into the other – as they do in much of her work. (The subjects of her paintings often reach off the canvas, while other visual elements can be found just about anywhere – in the main piece, on the frame, or extending beyond both.)

As her artwork overflows from the canvas, so Woodward s artful life overflows from her studio and her home into the surrounding community. Whether it’s the ‘Beer Here!’ sign for the local craft brewery or the ubiquitous face masks, Woodward continues to make her mark on Madoc – inviting and challenging each of us to see the world in a new and different way.

Find her on Instagram at @dianewoodwardart.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Umbrella magazine, available now.