William 'Woody' Joseph (1919-2000)

Born in rural in the hills of St Andrew, William ‘Woody’ Joseph’s talent as an artist was not recognized by Jamaica’s art ‘cognicenti’ until fairly late in his life. Initially, within his rural community he was considered something of a curiosity and even accused of Obeah and devil worship by members of his community. In that relatively conservative Christian setting, his sculptures were considered graven images and a challenge to Old Testament biblical traditions. Even in the face of this opposition Woody continued to carve. With no formal training or knowledge of western artistic principles, he was guided by his inner visions that he felt compelled to execute.

The inspiration for Woody’s work was ancestral memory, his images represent archetypal forms that can be linked to an African heritage. Of all the self-taught artists to have emerged in Jamaica, Woody’s work bears the closest resemblance to West African sculptures and it is difficult to account for this striking similarity. His heads, figures, strange totem like fetishes, suggest that they are archetypal images – a vision retained deep within the psyche.Woody approach to his work is also comparable to that of African artistic tradition. Guided by intuition he first selects his wood that is normally cedar (because the rafters of King Solomon’s temple were also made of cedar). Next, he muses on the ‘spirit’ within the wood itself, and he claims that the wood speaks to him as he works. He is merely releasing its hidden spirit. In this way he reveals faces of people, angels and animals distinguished by their their unusual patterns and markings; each one taking on its own character and sense of personage Finally, the work is coloured, sometimes in a logwood bath that gives it a deep burnished tone and that also helps to protect it from termites, at other times its is dyed black and highly polished. The result is minimalistic but nevertheless striking, from small to large each of Woody’s pieces come to life referencing religious and folk imagery of duppies, river maids, kings and queens. It is a hierarchy of images from a time past but not forgotten.

Woody’s work came to the attention of Jamaica’s art world during the 1980s through the support of the National Gallery that has maintained a policy of integrating the work of self taught artists into its national Collection. However, Woody’s work’ that so clearly references Africa, evokes strong emotion from many who are anxious to distance themselves from the experience of slavery and the past. It is for this reason that Woody’s work like that of other intuitives has always been greeted with ambivalence and uncertain patronage. PA-S