Profile and photograph by Michael C. Butz
Years 24 • Lives Cleveland & Canton • Creates Cleveland • Degrees BFA in painting from Cleveland Institute of Art
Justin C. Woody exudes creativity. He’s taken his talents from blank canvases to intricate looms to center stage, and at each stop, he impresses viewers and audience members alike.
The Canton native’s early creative influences were varied, too, but bound by a common thread: family. His mother is a hairstylist and his father a barber, and their beauty-industry artistry left an impression on Woody. His grandparents also provide artistic influence.ustin C. Woody exudes creativity. He’s taken his talents from blank canvases to intricate looms to center stage, and at each stop, he impresses viewers and audience members alike.
“My grandpa upholsters couches and my grandma makes dolls. It wouldn’t do well in the art world, but to me, there’s something special about it as far as what it has to do with my craft now. A lot of the things that are in my work, I get from them.”
In some ways, quite literally. Costume jewelry his grandmother uses for her dolls or to embellish eyeglass cases makes its way into Woody’s work, as does discarded hair from his parents’ professions.
These are evident in Woody’s most recent works, a series of tapestries that debuted in November 2017 at “NAPS,” a show with Marcus Brathwaite at Praxis Fiber Workshop in Cleveland’s Waterloo Arts District, where he’d just completed a six-month artist-in-residence program. Some of those pieces also were on view in the group show “Beau•ty” at PopEye Gallery at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland.
The large-scale pieces employ colors and patterns that grab one’s attention from across the room, but it’s upon closer inspection that the tapestries reveal themselves. Woody refers to some of his works as indexical collages; the materials – not just what they are but where they come from – have weight to them, and he hopes viewers consider the context.
“I really want people to recognize the material I use,” he says. “People need to recognize the material and recognize where it comes from, and the people who use those materials, and how you relate to those people, and how those people relate to you. I want them to have this exchange of culture and knowledge.
“Hair is probably one of the No. 1 identifiers to black culture, and next to that is music, dance, food – so many things you can kind of pick up, physically, that speak to that – and I wanted black culture to have space in this art world that’s just kind of white-walled sometimes,” he says. “I didn’t want to make a painting because it would blend in too much.”
Woody’s BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art is in painting, but even during his schooling, his interests began to shift. He found other media allowed him to produce work more quickly and on a larger scale than painting, and they allowed him to communicate things he felt he couldn’t in painting.
In fact, his BFA work consisted not of paintings but of a series of scans in which he used items he collected to compose abstract versions of faces akin to ceremonial masks from traditional African culture.
“I really liked the finished product; I felt the same about it as I did my finished paintings, or better because I knew the material I was using better than anyone else,” he says. “I knew about hair better than anyone else, I knew about the jewelry I was collecting. I kind of got fascinated with embellishment of things that were identifiers to black culture, specifically.”
Then there’s acting – an interest he’s pursued just as long as art. He’s performed several times at the Players Guild Theatre in Canton, where he’s taken on roles such as Gator in “Memphis,” Lumière in “Beauty and the Beast” and Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” This spring, he’ll play the lead role of Youth in the musical “Passing Strange” at Karamu House in Cleveland.
“That’s my biggest role yet,” he says. “And this is my first time working at Karamu. They have a huge reputation, so I’m very excited to work there.”
This summer, he’ll embark on a two-year conservatory program at American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. He’ll be studying musical theater and hopes the second year of the program will send him to Los Angeles.
For Woody, neither practice takes away from the other, and transitioning between them is “seamless.”
“I think that’s why I’m deciding to go back to school for theater, because I put it on the back burner, professionally, for such a long time in pursuing my art career,” he says, “but now I can do them both.” CV
Lead image: Justin C. Woody at Praxis Fiber Workshop in Cleveland.
“Justin Woody graduated from CIA with a degree in painting, though he is an artist whose practice incorporates many mediums, including performance, printmaking, weaving and photographic scans. His recent show at Praxis Fiber Workshop, ‘NAPS’ with artist Marcus Braithwaite, featured a selection of weavings produced during his six-month residency. Woody draws a connection between the process of weaving – combing through, stopping and restarting – to doing hair and its relationship to black identity. He is an artist to watch because he takes chances and isn’t afraid to experiment with different mediums in order to address his subject. Performance is a large part of his practice, which he pulls off with ease, and it’s readable even in his weavings. Not an easy thing to do, but he accomplishes it with charismatic presence and heart.”
– Nikki Woods, director, Reinberger Gallery at Cleveland Institute of Art
See Justin C. Woody play the lead role of Youth in the musical “Passing Strange,” which will be on stage from May 10 to June 3 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland.