Reflections by Dennis Reid
Ben Woofitt began painting in the late 1960s, one of a number of young artists in Toronto then responding directly to the triumphs of American colour-field painting. He had little formal training but displayed a real affinity for materials right from the beginning and an eagerness to explore unconventional techniques, such as the use of sponges rather than brushes. He was given his first solo exhibition in 1969, at Founders College, York University, Toronto. That year he also entered Therafields, a psycho- therapy clinic in Toronto that was rapidly developing a reputation for its success with patients, predicated upon a sense of a cooperative effort both in running the opera- tion (Woolfitt contributed his skills in accounting) and in delivering treatment. Intense creative workshops were a part of this and his art developed rapidly. He started working on individual pieces for extended periods of time while continuing to experiment with materials and techniques. He tried spray-painting onto the canvas in 1970, for instance, and introduced the use of gold paint in 1971. The next year he began using a commercial roller to apply his paint.
In 1972 he decided to open an art school, Woolfitt’s School of Contemporary Painting, deploying his growing knowledge and skills to generate a living through teaching. His own painting continued to develop, measured always in his mind against the accomplishments of the great New York painters, such as Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis. He entered into a relationship with a prominent Toronto dealer in 1974. His production began to slow down, however, and three years later he had virtually stopped painting. This was due in large part to the demands of his art school, which had not proven profitable and that he closed in 1979, and to a new business in art supplies and picture-framing that he had opened in 1978, all of this while continuing as Therafield’s accountant. Once he had his new business operation firmly underway, however, the art-making surged again.
There was painting, of course, spray-painting, work reflective of his admiration for Jules Olitski. But more significantly he was experimenting with new drawing techniques, first waxing the paper, then adding gold or silver leaf details, and then rubbing in dry pigment. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s he focused almost en- tirely on his drawings. The decline and then death of his sister from cancer in 1996 marked another critical step. He had begun writing in the small watercolour and ink drawings he made in books during numerous journeys to visit her in far-off Edmonton as she was dying. Work on similar drawings has remained an integral part of his creative rou- tine to this day. The death of his father in 1999 led to another significant innovation in his drawing, placing material such as crumpled paper, or screens, or loops of string, under the paper and then rubbing it with graphite or black chalk to
create an image, a technique known as frottage.
His art supply business flourished, and in 1997 he was able to buy a large building to house it and a spacious studio for himself, and his painting took off again. He was still focused very much on materials and method in this new work, but with a more highly personal sense of his hand, actively teasing out meaning and beauty through a long and detailed process. He has continued with this approach now for close to a decade. It involves working on a canvas that is laid out flat, applying a coat of glossy acrylic gel medium with a small amount of pigment, working it in with a trowel or palette knife and a rubbing cloth, letting it dry, then adding another coat, for upwards to 120 layers, a process that can take as much as four months. A deeply rich, complexly coloured topography is realized with this technique, a surface that is endlessly engaging. The history of its making is evident in the ragged edges of the layers of acrylic that have been left exposed around the perimeter of the canvas. These are
remarkable works of art.
Woolfitt’s drawings of the past decade present an even more profound accomplishment. Their diaristic basis is signalled by the double-page format of many of them, literally an open book offered up for our perusal. All of the sophisticated techniques he has perfected over the past thirty years or so are deployed, including a waxed ground, silver leaf, frottage images, graphite and powdered chalk rubbed in by hand, and the evidence of his hand is even more pervasive, often in the form of actual hand- prints, and in the writing, of course, in every work. This writing, which by its nature deeply reflects his state of mind, varies in length and in nature, from a single word, like a title, through to a number of lines with the cadence of a poem. That the writing is sometimes indecipherable does not seem to matter. It is, however, like every deliberate mark, smudge or appendage, a carefully considered part of the composition.
As with the paintings, we are acutely aware of the pro- cess of making these drawings as we examine them. They are more intensely personal than the paintings, however, at times darkly so, evidence of the artist’s aspirations, anxieties, his deepest feelings and concerns, all laid out for our consideration. Although they bear no visual relationship to East Asian brush-painting, the experience of these drawings always strikes me as being akin to the ex- perience of the more personal forms of Chinese and Japa- nese painting, and in particular the work of Japanese Zen masters, which is directly personal and encompasses entirely, indeed invites the full appreciation of, any vagary of the brush, each splash and blot. Every aspect of the master’s being is revealed for our edification. What a gift!