There’s just one image above, but there are really two others you need to fully understand the work and the artist behind it. That is, one image of John Wooldridge when he was younger, an academically gifted young man from rural Harrison who shot for the stars and brought them a little closer. And another to understand John as he is now, a not-quite-so-young man who’s spent the better part of a decade doing plein air paintings that appear somewhat soft around the edges—as if you’d removed your glasses and had to squint to see the scene captured on the panel
Here’s one: It’s round. Orange. Edges refined to the extent technology will allow, describing a curvature lit by a penumbra of shaky colors, a cluster of blue enveloping a golden core like an egg rising on the horizon. The little boy who looks at the thing in his hands, the cover of a National Geographic with images of Jupiter sent back from Voyager, and sees something previously unknowable, now made knowable. Years later, long after he’s left rural Arkansas and pursued his dream to work in the aerospace industry—going to Maryland for two separate stints as a thermal engineer, working for a company contracted by NASA, before settling in Maumelle where he designs optical encoders for science instruments and spacecraft—he’ll think back to that cover and the clarity of the image it afforded. Reflecting on this, he says: “If you’re looking at things from outer space, that’s almost like a wistful dreaming. You’re reaching for something that’s distant and far away and potentially unattainable, but you’re still going to try to reach for it.”
Here’s the other: One day earlier this year, his hands were freezing. Gloves didn’t make a difference. There was a “stout little” wind and a chill, mid-40s or thereabouts, sunk deep, tolerable for the 20 minutes he spent standing beside the car on that late Sunday afternoon—and no longer. It was worth it, though. Looking up, he remembers, the sun was just beginning to color the horizon. Pinks swept across, transitioning into deep purples of the sky and deeper purples of the hills. He paints it as he sees it, the colors are a wash. Remembering that Sunday in March, what it was like to be there, he says: “It’s really more about a lens for what is there … I like my work better when I diverge far from just what my eyes see. And something unconscious begins to form in what gets captured on the canvas. I guess it’s more about my personal feelings that are difficult to express.”
It’s interesting to think about how these two approaches to imagery relate: this impulse to render things so far away with as much precision as possible; the impulse to filter what’s closer in a more impressionistic way. Though on the surface they are different, they’re about the same man, because artist and scientist are one and the same—the same man who looks on the world around him through a radically different set of lenses. They describe, in their own ways, the split sides of the same coin, and it seems as though neither one couldn’t exist without the other.
A solo exhibition of Wooldridge’s recent work—Always Coming Home—is on display at Cantrell Gallery through October 29.