Department Dossier: Thomas Woodruff

July 23, 2012

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

Self-proclaimed “neo-fabulist” artist Thomas Woodruff has been teaching at SVA for almost 30 years, and has been chair of the BFA Illustration and Cartooning Department since 2000. Aside from having his work in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and the Honolulu Contemporary Museum, to name just a few, Woodruff has collaborated with avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson on the décor for his opera, Edison; illustrated Jack Handy’s My Big Thick Novel for the 2002 season of Saturday Night Live; contributed illustrations to Rolling Stone and other major publications; and created book covers for novels by Ann Tyler, Roberston Davies, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, among many others. He also has over 20 solo exhibitions under his belt, and his most recent one at P.P.O.W. Gallery, The Four Temperament Variations, received rave reviews. SVA Close Up caught up with Woodruff recently via email to talk cartooning and illustration and discuss his teaching experience at SVA.

What has teaching at SVA taught you?
I have taught here at SVA for a very long time. Nearly three decades. When I first began, I was quite young, and I truly formed my aesthetic and worked through my artistic priorities by having to verbalize them clearly each week in front of a group of students. Now I find these notions either are strengthened or have morphed in interesting ways, as young people and their concerns have altered my opinions, new questions and answers must be developed. I continue to learn from my students and am reminded how so many things change, and how many things stay the same: important issues of craft, communicating ideas through pictures, and formal pictorial methods are classical and pure and can be taught.  As they say in the commercial….”priceless.” Learning the difference between what is frivolous and fashion, and what is timeless and real, are some of the important things teaching at SVA has taught me.

What impresses you most about your students?
The SVA Illustration and Cartooning majors are very interesting to me. For the most part, they want to learn to do things by hand, and they think of digital technology as useful tools but not as the savior many corporate sensibilities want us to believe. These students are reliable, well mannered, and problem solve very well. They draw like angels. They are funny and engaged…they are sweet.

What makes a good illustrator/cartoonist?
A good illustrator and/or cartoonist is a person who is interested in telling stories and has the technical facilities and research skills to take us any place or to any time with ease, and create images that burn into your brain. The creation of memorable images comes from the study of picture making and art history, and the greatest thing an illustrator or cartoonist can do is put their own ego on hold for the sake of interpretation. Style was at one point the hallmark of the illustrator; it is now a “sensibility” that is in demand, and a keen interest to come up with the most effective solution to a visual problem. It is also important to be very, very reliable.

How does the BFA Illustration and Cartooning Department prepare students for their creative and professional lives after SVA?
SVA’s undergraduate program in Illustration and Cartooning primarily focuses on three things: The visual problem solving that can be directed to many areas and career paths, not specific to the “editorial” publishing word; the technical, the ability to draw and paint brilliantly and with love… having this skill is a ticket that can take you to many amazing places (in your career and in your actual world); and three, we train our students to be good professional citizens of the arts.  They learn how to never miss a deadline, give 500% even though they are just asked for 100%, be easy to work with, and they learn how to be in interested in others or else no one will be interested in them. Our faculty demands a lot from our students, because we expect them to succeed in a competitive world.

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