Walking through Kristjana Wood’s exhibition is much like going through a nature interpretation center or an aquarium. These exquisitely rendered paintings each focus on a single living subject, among them animals, plants, insects and even a few people. The canvases range in scale from the miniscule to epic full-wall pieces. “Forest of the Bullheaded Fishes” is the first solo show by Kristjana Wood, a recent University of Manitoba graduate who holds degrees in both Fine Arts and Sciences. She uses a scientist’s eye for observation with an expressive artistic sensibility to create a signature style that is at once accurate and joyful, a celebration of the documented subject. Wood explains: “I paint what I see. I’m not trying to get across a feeling [ . . . ] I want it to be bright and interesting, but still true to life.”
The show takes its name from a painting of the artist’s sister, named “Darling of the Bullheaded Fishes.” Wood chose the title in order to convey that the exhibition would be like a “forest with a population of living creatures in it.” However, it is the organisms, not their environment, that is the focus of the show. There is no detail in any of her meticulously detailed paintings that detracts the viewer’s focus away from the central subject. Just the amount of attention paid to capturing her subjects makes her paintings convey genuine reverence for the inherent wonder for living things.
Wood cites the natural world’s “different types of creatures and different ways of eating, breathing [and] functioning” as a rich source of inspiration for her as an artist. Through studying zoology in university she brings to her work a deep understanding of the biology and musculature of living things. In this way she allows the viewer to share that same sense of wonder that can be witnessed in children seeing an animal at the zoo for the first time. In an interview, Wood explains she’s made a deliberate choice not to work on introspective depressing subject matter. She elaborates: “I don’t want to look inside — I kind of want to look outside and see the beauty.”
Initially, Wood had intended to go into scientific illustration. Although she ultimately opted not to, the show’s flower paintings are homage to female 19th century flower illustrators who she greatly admires. Historically, these women built lucrative careers for themselves by drawing detailed drawings of flowers and sometimes the insects that fed on them. Since flowers were considered to be an appropriate subject for women to draw, these artists’ botanical studies became an acceptable method for them to contribute to the scientific communities.
Kristjana Wood continues the legacy of these pioneering women’s preoccupations with art as a tool of scientific investigation. She explains: “I want to observe and I want to portray something accurately — to try and notice the subtleties maybe [ . . . ] — what composes a shape and a shading to come together to make an overall whole.” Drawing continues to be an important research tool for scientists in various disciplines because it requires a higher degree of observation than simply looking at an object. Even with the introduction of cameras there is still no substitute for drawn diagrams in helping scholars understand biological workings of flora and fauna.
In keeping with the scientific approach, Kristjana Wood has systematically chosen to represent different types of biological phenomena at a time. She began by working on portraits of people before deciding she needed more of a challenge. After a brief period of experimentation with insect paintings while studying entomology, her mother’s passion for poodles directed her towards working on pet portraiture and the difficulty posed by fur. Pet portraiture dominates the show as well as making up the majority of her commissioned work. For her, this type of art is rewarding because of the deep emotional importance these animals have for people. “Anybody who’s ever had a pet realizes they all have personality,” Wood elaborates, “[these portraits are] significant, because pets are significant to people and they generate a lot of love and support.”
Masterful craftsmanship may be the most obvious characteristic of Wood’s work, but she also aspires to make art that allows people to “either remember a good feeling or be able to re-create a good feeling they’ve got before.” The vast majority of subjects in the show are animals which either Wood or those close to her have had a personal connection to. The largest piece in the show is a portrait of the artist’s cousin with Icelandic text along the side. Her motivations for this painting are consistent with those that inspired other pieces in the show; “she looked happy, it was a great angle, I loved the colours of the beer and I knew it was going to be big, so I wanted it to be a personal that was important to me too.”
For now, Kristjana Wood continues to push herself artistically to work on new subject matter as well as continuing with commissioned work. There’s a good chance her next show will be an aquarium, as opposed to a forest, as she works on sea-creatures. For the immediate future, her next goal is to “master the fish.”
“The Forest of the Bullheaded Fishes” runs until March 31 in the Icelandic Reading Room’s Dr. Paul H.T. Thorlakson Gallery.