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A Different Take on Pennsylvania Dutch Culture
Written by Kelly Chandler Staff Reporter

Bob Wood, of New Hanover Township, stands with some of his work currently exhibited at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville.  "Farm and Garden, A Fresh Look" runs through March 20.

        Area historian and former Boyertown English teacher Bob Wood has authentic roots in Pennsylvania Dutch culture.  And it's a love for his traditional upbringing that is manifesting itself in a non-traditional medium.

        Growing up on a New Hanover Township farm, Wood has many fond memories of his family working the land. And while he depicts many of those rural scenes in his work, you aren't going to find realistic depictions of landscapes or people.

        Instead, using acrylics, he showcases many of those familiar farm and garden objects in one-of-a-kind forms.  His works can only be described as akin to abstract or conceptual.  They are vastly different than the usual lifelike representations of the hardworking people who settled in this part of Pennsylvania starting in the late 1600's.

        "We have a hard time putting words to him to describe his art, to put a label on him," said Jane Stahl, co-founder of Studio B in Boyertown.  "But what we love about him is that he is so eager to try new things, to experiment with different materials and go in different directions."

        Wood is self-taught, so it is easy not to herd his work into a tidy category.

        "The painting and style itself eliminates nonessentials which, in my view are drawing and crafting," he explained.  "Drawing realistically doesn't interest me.  These paintings evolve; they're improvisational.  Sometimes it takes me a month to be happy with it.  I can paint and paint over it half a dozen times."

        Wood currently has 21 pieces on exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville in a show entitled "Farm and Garden, A Fresh Look."  Large and bright, many include bits of painted-over fabric, some glued onto the canvas, some not, to give the paintings depth and dimension, he said.

        His favorite, entitled "Autumn Refrain" contains colorful illustrations of PA German fraktur as well as other structural elements.  In the "Garden of Moral Authority," a distorted figure is seen harvesting.  It speaks on the miracle of growth and life, Wood said, and is many-layered and complex like good and evil.

        Several of the pieces have bits of literary works painted into them.  As a former educator, who first dabbled in painting while encouraging his students to illustrate narratives or vocabulary words, he can't help but marry the two art forms.

        Poetry from Wallace Stevens is featured in a few of the paintings, as well as the mention of the Flannery O'Connor short story collection, "Everything That Rises Must Converge."  Wording from a Mormon hymn are inscribed on another piece. Wood also alludes to visual art like Pablo Picasso's "The Old Guitarist" and "Death on a Pale Horse" by Benjamin West.

        His painting "Aunt Cora," while named after Wood's real-life aunt, references a photo of H. Winslow Fegley's in the "Farming Always Farming" collection. 

        "I think this is [an example of] cross-pollination of the arts, where one informs or pollinates the other," Wood explained.

        Influenced by painters Jo Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon of the 1950's, as well as his wife, Sandra, a well-known area art educator and artist, Wood said he plans to simply "keep creating."

        "I never do the same thing twice.  I like to keep moving.  To do the same thing over and over again is work and who wants to do that," he joked.  "I'm retired."

        This summer, he said he would like to get back into ceramics, which he first tried his hand at in the 1970's.  But he isn't satisfied with going to a chain art supply store and buying clay.  No, Wood made his own propane-fired ceramic kiln and hand-dug clay from a local creek.

        It ties into his love for local history, as do his classes on PA Dutch folk culture currently being held at Studio B.  Past topics he has discussed include ice harvesting, butchering and corn. 

        Wood also serves as a gallery host at the studio.  His painting "Annie Weeding Lima Beans," a part of The Modern Farm exhibit ending Saturday there, won best in show.

        You can also find some of his work at the Jewish Cultural Center in Reading.

        "Farm and Garden a Fresh Look" is on exhibit at the heritage center through March 20. 

        Director Sarah Heffner said Wood's works have been a good draw to date.

        "I really enjoy this show not only because of its orgins in Pennsylvania German culture, but it is original in its expression," she said.  "It's very good to have it here during a dreary winter.  Especially since it's bright and has explosions of color."      





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