John Cheney Wood and 1954 Chevy Bel Air

John Wood & 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air; photograph by Suzanne Wood

John Cheney Wood (1922-2012) was born in Delhi, California to Norman Shattuck Wood and Louise Cheney Wood.

John Wood’s father, Norman Wood (1895 – 1967), was born and grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. He studied agriculture at the University of Connecticut and was an able carpenter.

Wood’s mother, Louise Cheney (1894-1996), was born in North Carolina. When she was five, her paternal grandparents persuaded her parents that she would have “so many more advantages” growing up in the North, so she was sent to live with them in Brookline, Massachusetts. She and Norman Wood married in 1915.

They responded to the call for homesteaders in the Mojave Desert in California, where they lived and farmed (unsuccessfully) from 1921-1924.  The depression and financial stresses led John Wood’s parents to divorce when he was in high school; he had been in nine different schools in the Northeast while his father searched for work. He finished high school in Concord, MA, and attended MIT on a scholarship, studying mechanical drawing.

In 1941, he joined the U.S. Air Force (1941-1945), because he wanted to learn to fly. His early experiences with photography (he obtained his first camera when he was twelve) were expanded, as flying enabled him to literally view the world differently. He referred often to his discovery of the horizon line and the concept of “plumb,” which shows up in his work and translates into an uncanny sense of creative balance. “The aerial view with its constantly changing perspective became very important to him.”

It was in the Air Force, too, that he learned to teach – he taught others to fly while stationed in Texas. He explained that “the student pilot can only learn to fly by flying, so the instructor has to let go, allow the trainee to fly, even to make mistakes, and to solve them.”

Once his tour in the Air Force had ended, with the benefit of the G.I. Bill for funding college, Wood entered the architectural engineering program at the University of Colorado leaving to open a commercial photo studio with a friend in Concord, Massachusetts.

His curiosity and desire to do his own work led him to Boston’s museums, galleries and libraries, discovering Lazlo Maholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion in the process. It describes an educational program which incorporated art, design and technology, based on the educational experiments at the Bauhaus in Germany. By the fall of 1950 he was enrolled in the Institute of Design in Chicago (started by Maholy-Nagy as the new Bauhaus in 1937), living in a converted store-front with his wife Suzanne Watson Wood.

Photographer Aaron Siskind was on the I.D. faculty at the time, and their relationship continued past their time in Chicago, due to Wood’s regard for Siskind as a teacher and colleague and Siskind’s regard for Wood as a student and colleague. Wood said, “I really liked [Siskind’s] ideas. I never took any courses with him, but I really liked the way he went about things. …Aaron was always able to clear away everything that was unimportant. He could come right to the point of the matter. I always thought that his photographs were like that too…”

Harry Callahan was head of the photo department; in an environment of commercial design and commercial photography, Callahan “represented the other alternative, the photographer committed for purely creative reasons.”

Wood received the Bachelor of Science degree from the Institute of Design in Chicago. He and Suzanne moved to Alfred, NY when he was recruited to teach at Alfred University (NY) in 1954-55, developing the photo, graphic design, book arts, printmaking and foundation programs in the School of Art & Design.

He lived in Alfred, New York from 1954 to the mid-1980’s, when he moved to Ithaca, NY to live with Laurie Snyder; they married in 1996. They relocated to Baltimore, MD for her teaching position in the Photography Department at Maryland Institute College of Art.

He continued to make art until shortly before his death in 2012, working on a series of digital collages, small drawings and carvings.

John had a major impact on the art world through his 33-year teaching career and his many students. In Photography, one of his first students went on to become a well-known photographer, curator, friend and supporter. Nathan Lyons was a student of John’s at Alfred in the 1950’s and went on to be an associate director and curator of photography at George Eastman House and founder and long-term director of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. He organized “John Wood: On the Edge of Clear Meaning”, the first retrospective exhibition and catalogue of the artist’s work, completed in 2008. The book, On the Edge of Clear Meaning (Steidl, 2009), edited by Nathan Lyons and designed by Joan Lyons, includes a critique of Wood’s work, a biographical essay and an essay about his teaching career at Alfred University.

John Wood Drawing on Rock

John C Wood drawing on rock, photograph by Laurie Snyder

An excellent NY Times article on the occasion of the On the Edge of Clear Meaning exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in NYC in 2009 contains additional biography and can be found here.

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