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IN FOCUS: Coral Woodbury


Our current ‘In Focus’ shines a spotlight on the life and work of Coral Woodbury giving the reader an enhanced overview of the artist, her general working practice, and an interview with Coral accompanied by images from different bodies of work and links to interviews and articles.

Coral Woodbury was born in New York in 1971 and currently lives and works near Boston. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts, in painting and printmaking and spent a semester studying in Italy. Following her Masters in Museum Studies, she worked as a museum curator at the Newport Mansions documenting the untold stories of the domestic service.

Coral critically reinterprets Western artistic heritage from a feminist perspective, bringing overdue focus and reverence to the long line of women artists who worked without recognition or enduring respect.

Coral’s most recent and ongoing project Revised Edition rectifies the complete erasure of women artists from the first 29 printings of Janson’s History of Art. First published in 1962, Janson’s became the defining art history text of the twentieth century, shaping the Western canon and understanding of art for generations. And yet the text did not mention a single female artist until 1986. With Revised Edition, Coral inks portraits of women artists on pages torn from the book, making visible those who have been obscured, reclaiming space for them.

Coral has participated in numerous residencies including in Italy with rosenclaire, with whom she has worked for nearly 30 years. In 2020 she was a finalist for the international Mother Art Prize, awarded by Procreate Project and exhibited at Cromwell Place, London, UK. In 2018 she was awarded the MA Juror’s Prize for Painting at the Boston Biennial V, Atlantic Works Gallery, Boston.

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What has even been deemed art at all, all of art history, was defined and determined by men. Women’s art was demoted to domestic decorative craft. Recognising women from previous ages also means recognising the very exceptional and rare who managed to be artists despite all the opposing forces, and to come down through history.

Revised Edition came about because I was at a point in my work when I was wondering how to move forward, what my work needed, what direction to take it. What have other women, mothers, done as artists? I realised I didn’t really know, because I hadn’t been taught about any. When I started considering my dearth of knowledge about women artists I realised it was endemic to the way art history was taught.

I went and looked and there were no women in the textbooks. None. Janson’s History of Art, the canonical text book of 21st century art history in Western culture, had completely left them out. This was a type of active repression. As women gained more rights, they were erased from history.

I want to know who these women were, what their lives were like and how their work connects to their biographies. The mothers among them, unsurprisingly, responded quite individually. Some essentially left their children, some worked with children underfoot. Some died in childbirth.

I use sumi ink and brush, though my favourite drawing implement is a stick. It is a grapevine from when I worked as a grape harvester in Italy. It curves to my hand and is worn smooth. If my house was burning down that would be one of the first things to grab.

I use black ink as I wanted it to meld with the pages of the book. Colour would sit on top of the page in a different way, and I wanted them to blend with what is already on the page. Ink was the right medium, the same as that of the book. The women needed to be in, to be part of the book, and the history it tells. But there is another reason, and that is to express the common humanity and shared struggles among women. I wanted to show unity among heterogeneity.

Himalaya and Havana Colour series

Both were trips I made because of my work. I participated in #00Bienial in Havana. Not the official biennial but an unofficial, and therefore, unsanctioned one. Some international artists were turned back at customs, but I was an unknown. I also had an exhibition in a museum in Kathmandu, and was welcomed into a group of artists. Travelling with art provides a way of being embedded in a community. You come into shared proximity with people and their daily lives.

I wanted to find a way to document those trips and experiences. I made it a project, when I land in a new country, to find an old book resonant of that place. I have worked a lot with palimpsests and this is an enduring influence. I use a tiny palette of gouache, and the book I find as a painting pad or sketchbook. It is a way of record-keeping and communicating. I don’t speak Spanish or Nepalese, but art is universal and people are curious. I choose colours that I see around me, and capture them as faithfully as I can. Each place has very distinct colours, a language in colours, which I do speak.

I have always loved to read, to journey as someone else, to somewhere else. There was no library in my town; the school library was it for me. I would bring bags of books home from school for the summer holidays — but I never wanted to be a writer. I did do a lot writing for academic papers when I worked in museums and wrote tours for the Newport Mansions, but that wasn’t about my voice. I was interested in how to tell other people’s stories — which it seems is what I am still doing.

In Nepal I found an old book on yoga, falling apart, with no binding and full of bookworm holes. I made my colour studies in the simplified composition of a mandala. In Cuba I found a book about music. As I became more aware of the censorship and harassment my new artist friends endured, I started covering over the musicians in the book, silencing them. They became blindfolded and muted by my blocks of tropical colour. These books become a visual journal. In Cuba, a growing awareness of the repression struck me. I had taken so much for granted, even my right to make art, until I visited a country where that right depends on loyalty to state ideology.

The text in the books becomes a composition to work within — its lights and darks, its linear qualities and texture, and the added depth of content. Books offer a tension between text and image. I became fascinated with palimpsests. These are ancient parchment manuscripts that were scraped down and overwritten, basically recycled because of the expense and labour of obtaining new pages. But the ink is embedded in the original vellum and over years the original text re-emerges. You get a double layer of languages and meanings that all come together in a story told across millennia. This object connects humans across vast expanses of time – through their thoughts and their hands.

I always had an interest in material culture… Trying to use material evidence as a way of reconstructing a story. And I think I am still doing the same thing- trying to make visible what has been hidden.

Coral Woodbury | In Conversation

Conversation between Coral Woodbury and Dr Claudia Tobin, organised by Royal Drawing School.⁠

The conversation will explore key influences and events which have informed Coral's work; her travels to Cuba and Nepal which inspired the Havana and Himalayan Colours series and the universality of loss which led her to explore themes in her paintings around healing and the beauty in the broken places.⁠

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Coral Woodbury| Procreate Project, IGTV | October 2020

Interview with Claire Mander, Chair of Steering Committee UK Friends, National Museum of Women in the Arts and Director, CoLAB Ltd.

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Coral Woodbury| Artist in Pawtucket | May 2020

Interview with Kali Quinn, Compassionate Creativity, podcast audio.

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