Memoirs: William “Woody” Joseph (1919-1998)

This article was first published in the Jamaica Monitor of October 3, 2021.

William “Woody” Joseph – Angel, c1990, private collection (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

When I first met the self-taught Jamaican wood-sculptor William Joseph in the mid-1980s, he was living in a bamboo shack near the river in Stony Hill. Woody, as he was affectionately called, was already a regular visitor to the National Gallery of Jamaica, where I worked in the Education Department at that time. The very first piece of Jamaican art I ever bought, sometime in early 1985, was a small Woody woodcarving which he had brought when he visited the Gallery with new work for sale, as he did on a weekly basis. Woody subsequently moved back to his birthplace, Castleton, St Mary, to a new, small concrete house that was provided to him with assistance from members of the artistic community, who had raised funds to acquire the land and build the house. He lived there for the rest of his life, and it is there that I visited him regularly, often in the company of other art local and overseas enthusiasts.

Woody lived near the Castleton Botanical Gardens but on the opposite side of the Wagwater River. Visiting him involved either crossing a shallow section of the river near his house, or crossing the river on the pedestrian bridge just past Castleton, which involved a walk of about one and half miles on a path near the river. While the path was a relatively easy and pleasant walk, returning to the car was often a more challenging affair, when newly acquired sculptures, some of them sizeable and heavy, had to be carried. A walk in the beautiful Castleton Gardens, some fresh coconut water from a stand on the parking near the Police station, and a swim in the river often rounded off a memorable and refreshing day in the country.

Woody had been sculpting since about 1965 – or “two years after Flora”, as he liked to put it, characteristically using a method to mark time that was experiential rather than based on calendars and clocks. He developed a friendship with Eric Cadien and Stanley Barnes, two young Jamaican artists, and had his first exhibition at their short-lived Paisley Gallery in Stony Hill. He was in 1979 featured in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s ground-breaking Intuitive Eye exhibition, and included in Jamaican Art 1922-1982, a major survey exhibition which was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the National Gallery of Jamaica, and toured in the USA, Canada and Haiti. Many other exhibitions followed, at the National Gallery, Harmony Hall, and other venues. While always mild-mannered, Woody was a striking presence at any art event he attended, often wearing a wooden hat and carrying a carved staff, which added a spectacular, performative element to his artistic and cultural persona, as other self-taught popular artists such as Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Everald Brown and Albert Artwell also liked to do.

Woody used cedar root as his main material and allowed himself to be inspired by the evocative natural shapes of the wood, as other Jamaican self-taught sculptors also do. He initially carved with home-made implements although later patrons gifted him professional carving tool sets, which were easier to work with as he began to suffer from age-related arthritis. Most of his sculptures represented human figures, many with a fantastic edge, representing angels and other spiritual figures, although he also produced a few animal sculptures, pieces of furniture, walking staffs, and wooden hats. His style was minimalist, with roughly carved, simplified, stylized elements, and his sculptures usually had a mildly humorous, joyful, and benevolent quality. Most of his sculptures were titled and the naming process, which came after the completion of the work, was obviously important to him. Many of his titles (although referring to them as “names” would be more appropriate) associated his sculptures with actual persons, although they were not portraits in any conventional sense. I remember one named after the Jamaican politician Bobby Jones and others with names such as John Clappy and Sister Marie, that reference the world of Revival religion which provides the broader cultural context to Woody’s work.

Formally and conceptually, Woody’s work powerfully represents the traditional, African-derived heritage in Jamaican culture. This was also obvious in his techniques. With very few exceptions, his sculptures were stained in red or in black and different techniques were used for the two colours. The black sculptures were placed in a dyebath that included logwood and other substances, and taken out, sanded and re-immersed repeatedly until the desired effect was achieved. The red ones were stained with a variable concoction that involved hibiscus flowers, red earth and the red floor polish that is traditionally used in rural Jamaica, and also involved a process of staining and sanding. Such staining and dyeing techniques are also used in West and Central African sculpture and mask-making traditions.

Woody’s work is certainly also indebted to the Taino woodcarving traditions, which may have survived along with the African ones, through Maroon culture and African-derived traditions. But there were occasionally also other sources. Woody was illiterate and needed assistance even to carve his signature “J” on his sculptures. But this does not mean that he was completely insulated from the visual culture and art world around him, of which he was in fact an active and keen visual observer – visual literacy is just as important in acquiring and sharing knowledge and insights as verbal literacy is. I vividly remember his reaction to Edna Manley’s Prayer (Kneeling Figure, 1936), a private donation to the National Gallery in the late 1980s. I observed him studying the sculpture intently and for quite some time and a few weeks later, he completed a sculpture that interpreted the rather unusual, tension-filled posing of Manley’s (it is now in a private collection).

Woody’s death in 1998 came unexpectedly, although he reportedly died from natural causes. I attended his funeral, which was held at the Castleton Community Centre. A sizeable contingent from the art world was in attendance, in addition to his family and community members. What should have been a fond farewell, however, became an unexpectedly troubling experience. David Boxer read a short tribute in which he poetically argued that Woody was now with the angels he had so imaginatively represented in his work, and with Eric Cadien and Stanley Barnes, who had both predeceased him. It was a lovely tribute, but the preacher retorted vociferously that Woody had not been an observing Christian and was not “saved,” and could thus not go to heaven, repeatedly pointing at Woody’s body in the open coffin in the process. Many at the funeral, myself included, were baffled by this outburst, which seemed so hostile and disrespectful to the deceased, especially since Woody was a man whose work was so deeply spiritual and who was well loved by many. The incident however highlighted that the world of Caribbean popular culture is not a unified or cohesive one and that what is most valued in it by the cultural and academic community may be regarded as ungodly and superstitious by others in the popular culture, especially among those associated with fundamentalist Christianity. Kapo, who was a Zion Revivalist bishop, is not the only one to have encountered such prejudices within his community. What matters more, however, is how we remember Woody today, as a highly original and accomplished artist, who produced work that is deeply spiritual and beautiful, and who had an open, non-judgemental mind which allowed him to represent and interpret Jamaica’s cultural heritage and traditional spiritual life in a joyful and engaging manner.

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