Thomas Woodruff's "Freak Parade"
Greg Escalante digs deep into the beautifully twisted psyche of Thomas Woodruff
So Thomas, what was it that brought you to the conclusion that you should
pursue one line of thinking as a body of work for five solid years?
Well, completing the full body of work for "Freak Parade" in
five years wasn't an up-front commitment. I mean, one doesn't just wake up
and decide, "Today I'm going to begin an Odyssey of visual momentum that
will span the next five years of my life..." No, I made the "Anatomy
Boy" painting and thought that he needed a friend, a pet. So I put a leash
in his hand and made the "Siamese Wolves in Sheep's Clothing" image,
and I was well on my way to creating something of a series. After that I felt
I really had something, and then "Root-Hare Float” (the bunnies
with swan necks) and "Ice Ghost" appeared. At five pieces I realized
that I had a parade!
Your current "Parade" includes 32 striking paintings. Were
there any ideas that you didn't use?
Oh definitely. I had a lot of ideas, like the hand float. It was composed
of people in finger suits. Like if you had one person wearing a different suit
for a corresponding finger in a glove, the ring finger was a bride, etc. But
that didn't work. There have been others not so clever to need mentioning.
But the thing that did strike me as I thought through the beginning stages
of this was that this was an amazing homage to all things in celebration -
parades, fashion shows, and weddings. There always has to be a big balloon,
and flowers, and feathers and ribbons, and there's even a reference to the
Mummer's parade, complete with a triad of white peacocks with top hats.
And how did you see this even coming to a conclusion?
Oh, as they all do, with a sweeper, like the end of Jay
Fairy Tales. But in my parade, the sweeper is the Grim Reaper…sweeper,
so to speak.
Did this all debut at once, or has it been shown in pieces outside the
It debuted as a whole. Barry Blenderman ran a gallery in New York City
that showed Martin Wong and Mark Kostabi and Ellen Berkenblit. But he left
NY and ran the University Galleries at Normal, IL. So I thought, "Wouldn't
it be great if this series of freaks could be seen first in its entirety in
a place called "Normal"?
So how normal is Normal?
It's not normal at all!
When we did the opening, the local tattoo shop came to pay their respects.
It was a 10-station tattoo shop, so they probably had 20 tattoo artists come
in all at once. Seriously, that's no small order of business for a town that
size to have such a demand for tattoos. Their shop even had a hoist in the
backspace where they would do suspensions. The owner had the rings set into
the back of his hands and all. I was surprised to learn that there was a very
serious underground modification world going on there. I was impressed since
there's no public suspension space in New York! There's some very severe stuff
there in Normal, IL.
So what was the rest of the crowd like at the opening?
It was the most heavily attended show they'd had at that venue. Kids came
out in force. And even the people that didn't even like art were ready to enjoy
the work. It just goes to show - everybody loves a parade!
It was interesting to see it all up at once for a full viewing. The spectacle
of the event became that while viewing the parade the people themselves became
an incredible and beautiful living parade.
Where else has the parade traveled?
The Freak Parade had a lovely reception at the Cal State Long Beach Gallery
last fall, and will soon be going to the museum at the Herron School of Art
and Design (Perdue) in Indianapolis, Indiana from August 8th through October
4th 2008. Other venues are in the works for the next few years.
So at what point did you know that you were an artist?
I always drew better than the other kids in school, so I had a clue early
on. I grew up in an Irish-American Roman Catholic family of six. We all had
our share of bad art instructions, Saturday programs. We each took a different
avenue; my brothers took guitar, dance, piano, etc. The others' lessons didn't
stick but I really took to mine.
Plus, in New Rochelle there was a lot of theatre. And all the kids that grew
up there, 30 minutes from Manhattan, were easily interested in the arts. I
did sets for school plays and the theatre group as a teen. That continued to
art school to work on backdrops for sets, as the main focus in academics was
abstract and I was working figuratively. I hooked up with the avant-garde theatre
in New York in the 70's and started working for Robert Wilson. So I can honestly
say that there's always been a strong sense of the theatre in my work.
You worked with Robert Wilson?
Indeed. He was the experimental director who did "Einstein on the
Beach". Philip Glass did the music for his operas, as he's a huge superstar
in Europe. He primarily directs extended works that are beautifully designed
and exquisitely lit theatre spectacles. But they are slow moving…he
did an epic one in Iran that lasted for 24 hours.
So how did you make headway in college as a figurative artist in an abstract
It was frustrating because my instructors at Cooper Union
were either first or second-generation abstract expressionists, or dyed in
the wool modernists,
or dry conceptualists. I was working for Robert while still in college, and
it was helpful to learn how artists actually "work". This was positive
and negative, I probably learned more about the kind of artist I didn’t
want to be during this period. I was seeing that now it was actually possible
to be an artist and make a living. Then came magazine illustrations, and
that seemed kind of pure. Like I said, I was one of the few artist serious
working in a figurative manner, and I was also good at reading things carefully
and figuring out the symbolic image for a given text. I was reliable, fast,
clever, and no trouble, so I was well suited for illustration.
It was great training; you sat down and make something. I wasn’t sitting
around contemplating each stroke. It enabled me to take on more ambitious projects
in my personal work. I’m very good with coming up with ideas, but sometimes
shaky with the follow through, so with the more elaborate projects, I found
that I could trick myself into finishing things by setting up rules to the
opus. ones you can't just stop halfway if you're bored, I’d have to finish
everything. For example, I couldn’t stop at 345 apple paintings, I
had to complete all 365.
So did you see this parade piece as something more than just 32 paintings?
The "Freak Parade" was something that I always
saw as a book. So I set it up as sets of 8, and that's why there are 32 images.
It's the format
for publishing a book in signatures.
Don “Ed” Hardy published this book under his imprint Hardy
That’s correct. It was designed by Robin Read and
won a prestigious design award from the AIGA. You can order it from the publisher
online at www.tattoocitysf.com,
or through Last Gasp.
How did you and Hardy meet?
I started collecting tattoos over 25 years ago. At that point there weren't
many tattoo artists, and it was really underground. My first piece was from
an artist named Tux in Baltimore. I walked into the shop and thought the images
were fascinating, beautiful and mysterious. I just picked an image from the
wall, not even really expecting to get tattooed; I was 23 at the time. From
that time on, I would get them when I would go on trips. I heard about Hardy
from Erno, a tattooer in San Francisco, from whom I had collected some work.
He had an appointment that he wasn't going to be able to meet. And since you
had to book Hardy months in advance, he offered me his appointment slot. At
the time Ed was primarily doing the full body Japanese pieces. I had this American
style wolf head on my arm and wanted the whole body wolf to wrap around the
triceps. So Ed marked it out in ballpoint pen, and went from there. I was passionate
about the vocabulary of the classic Americana imagery, which he wasn't really
into anymore. I think that through our friendship and the work he's inked on
my arms, chest and back, I believe he reinvestigated his love for the classic
I heard he wasn't doing tattooing anymore.
He's actually been so busy doing porcelain designs in Japan, new prints,
and gallery shows. And with the opportunities to expand his vision through
avenues made available through the fashion line, it's given him the freedom
to explore so many more exciting things. He's one of the most amazing artists
that I know.
So did you learn to tattoo from Ed?
Hah. I did! He said it would take one week to learn to tattoo.
So I took two weeks to go out and learn with him. He taught me how to make
the needles and what equipment to buy. I did the first one on myself, as is
the tradition. I was a tone and shade guy, not a line guy. But this helped
my line I felt.
It was illegal to tattoo in New York at the time. There were no street shops,
so I didn't do much tattooing at the time. Around that time I met Mike Malone
(R.I.P.). He said I could work in his shop in Honolulu. So I went out to work
for a time, at Sailor Jerry's old shop. It was terrifying and very exciting.
I'm not a very good tattoo artist, and it's kind of gross to do on a daily
Did you improve your line work?
Yeah, and I learned that if I ever need to escape from life I can set up
shop near a military base and do pretty well! That's Plan B, I guess. (laughing)
So this Freak Parade, are they all sold or privately owned or for sale?
At this point the sales issue is not a big issue for me.
I would like for them to be in one place, as one piece. Because I primarily
in series, it saddens
me to have the works dispersed all over the globe. There is one of my clown
paintings from a series of nine that is in a museum collection in Australia
that will be hard to borrow back, and I may never see again. But not with
this series, the "Freak Parade" is still intact. I own them all and ideally
I want them to tour and be seen by as many people as possible. It’s
fun to look at them in person.
So you're the Chair of the Illustration department at the SVA in New York?
Chair of the Department of Illustration and Cartooning, yes. When I took
this job I was a fine artist and illustrator with no cartooning experience.
But I’m a fast learner, and know how to contact people WAY smarter than
me! The school is now being hailed at the "Harvard of Cartooning" in
the business, particularly for women in cartooning. It's manga that's really
important now to so many. The Ameri-manga scene is centered at SVA at the
moment; the students are getting significant book projects immediately after
So what have you been working on since the Freak Parade has come to a conclusion
A new series based on the planets. They're nine upside down heads painted
on black silk velvet. They each appear as one character, but become different
personalities when flipped over. They're actually going to revolve, be motorized.
It's difficult to paint on the velvet, you have to skim many thin layers
of paint just the right consistency to get the best effect, but when they’re
finished they are pretty dazzling! I’m working on the sun now, the
biggest (obviously) and the most complex. They will be exhibited in N.Y.
at PPOW Gallery
this fall from October 4th to November 9th. To see a preview you can visit
their website www.ppowgallery.com.
Well, if the "Freak Parade" is any indication
to the complexities of Woodruffworld, I’m certain this new group of
planets will be over the top and out of this world!