Harold J. Wood has always been my definition of an artist. He remains a remarkably creative force at age 65, after five decades of painting, drawing, and designing and crafting everything from fine furniture to customized aircraft interiors. Right alongside him for 34 of those years has been his wife, Barbara.
Harold and Barbara Wood became U.S. citizens on Tuesday, 34 years after leaving their native England and coming to San Antonio as newlyweds with little more than their suitcases and their dreams. Yesterday they were two people amid a crowd of 885 immigrants from 89 countries who stood to swear allegiance to the United States at Laurie Auditorium at Trinity University. Their son, James, 30, and daughter, Melloney, 26, both artists who live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, were on hand to witness the occasion.
The Woods are as English as Shepherd’s Pie, so it was with a mixture of pride and excitement, tempered by nostalgia for homeland, that they took on new citizenship as Americans who can now register to vote, apply for U.S. passports and enjoy all the privileges that citizens take for granted and immigrants must earn.
“It feels weird, wonderful on the one hand about the new, a bit sad on the other about the old…I’m not sure what to feel, but it’s good,” Harold said. “It’s wonderful, beautiful, yes, we feel very good,” Barbara interjected as hugs with friend and family were exchanged amid the picture-taking. The same scene unfolded throughout the auditorium as excited families clustered for photos, the new citizens proudly clutching certificates of citizenship and voter registration applications.
The presence of U.S. Magistrate John Primomo as presiding judge for the citizenship ceremony made Laurie Auditorium, for a few hours, a federal court of law. You wouldn’t know it by the boisterous cheers as the name of each country represented was read aloud and immigrants from those nations stood to be recognized.
The list began with American Samoa, Argentina and Australia, and proceeded alphabetically across the continents except for Antarctica, until Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe were called. The court’s sense of drama was made evident when the last country of all, Mexico, was called out amid a deafening roar as the many immigrants from south of the border stood. People from all nations call San Antonio home.
Every native-born American ought to attend at least one citizenship ceremony to experience the unique mix of pomp and circumstance, patriotism, history and emotion. The 323rd Army Band from Fort Sam Houston drew loud applause with each rendition of a patriotic tune. Uniformed band members were joined by vocalist Sharon Diehl of the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center who sang “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A finale of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Strips Forever” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” had people clapping in unison.
The Presentation of Colors was made by the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force Color Guard. Members of Boy Scout Troop 157 handed out voter registration forms. Air Force Gen. Edward A. Rice, Jr., Commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph, delivered an engaging keynote address. A video brought back to life Pres. John F. Kennedy, who spent his last full day alive in San Antonio, and moved through Sept. 11, 2001 and on to the 2008 inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama. New citizens waved small American flags handed out by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Bexar County Democratic Party was represented amid the VIP guests, their Republican counterpart oddly absent.
This was the largest and most impressive ceremony I have attended. Smaller events often take place at the Institute for Texan Cultures at Hemisfair Park. Despite the crowd size, Primomo told new citizens he would stay as long as necessary so everyone could pose with him for family photographs.
I came as a friend and admirer of Harold and Barbara. He is an artist of great accomplishment whose work many in San Antonio still do not know after all these years. Harold and Barbara are private people and he is a poor self-promoter. I once watched him deliver a lecture about his art at the Blue Start Contemporary Art Center. Talking about his art before an audience seemed even more painful than the process of creating the art.
According to Wood’s online bio, he and his wife, Barbara, came to San Antonio in 1978 from England with little more than “a small suitcase, paintbrushes and a commission to paint a mural of Arabic life for a Boeing 707 for the Dee Howard Company of San Antonio, Texas.”
Wood quickly founded his own company, AVIART Group, where he pioneered new techniques for painting the aircraft interiors. He transformed metal fuselages into intricately patterned surfaces that appeared to be made of finely grained woods, precious metals or stone, or whatever other sleight of hand Wood created with thin, nearly weightless layers of paint. AVIART Group became a highly successful business and a working school that transformed inner city youth, many from the Edgewood High School shop program, into craftsmen. Wood sold AVIART in 2000, a sale that made him a wealthy man. Then, in the post-9/11 world, the company disappeared under new ownership.
The sale gave Wood more time to pursue other passions, such as continental cooking and building an incomparable cellar of French wine, but material success made him no less restless as an artist. He formed Harold Wood & Company and combined his hard-earned mastery of craft acquired in San Antonio with his early devotion to painting as a teenage dropout who apprenticed in the studio of his father, a noted English painter also named Harold. He left England and came here, I’ve always thought, to make a new home where his name and art would be his own.
Wood set up shop, literally, with John O’Brien, who had worked with him at AVIART, and together the pair collaborated on the making of very finely crafted furniture. Each piece is an individual work of art. Patrons of Bliss, Chef Mark Bliss’ signature restaurant in Southtown, can see that work without leaving their chairs since every table was designed by Wood and built by O’Brien. The paintings that grace the walls of Bliss also are Harold Wood originals, including the long landscape in the restaurant’s back dining room. Our oldest son, Nicolas, was fortunate enough to apprentice for one summer under Wood and O’Brien, while attending the UT School of Architecture in Austin. His focus on craft clearly was deepened there.
Wood’s one-man show, “Levelland (Points of Scale),” at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center that ran from December 2011 through February of this year, was inspired by photographs Woods took on his frequent auto journeys from San Antonio to Santa Fe, where he and Barbara have a second home. Occasional road travelers who experience the vast expanse of West Texas as it gives way to New Mexico and its narrow, ribboned highways can be forgiven for feeling they are in an empty landscape void of life. A closer examination, however, reminds the sojourner that man and what he builds comes and goes with the seasons, while nature endures over time not measured on a human scale. Wood described his acrylic on polyester canvass paintings, painstakingly etched with knives, screws and other assorted hand-held hardware, as “the ambiguity between landscape and abstraction.”
Wood also is my definition of a good friend, one whose generosity is both material and of the world, and spiritual and of the soul. His is the generosity of someone who once had nothing, earned success, and since then has never stopped pursuing his own art or helping others realize their potential. I was privileged to be among a small group of friends who raised the funds in 2009 to have his deeply emotional and honest self-portrait placed in the permanent collection at the McNay Museum of Art.
Four years earlier, Wood was selected by the McNay for a one man show titled, “Harold Wood: A Room of His Own.” The exhibition was a remarkable display of art and magic, one that gave me my first appreciation of Wood’s craftsmanship, his knowledge of art history and classic literature, and his singular sense of humor. He spent years on what would be seen as his tour de force, employing faux painting, sleek veneers, supple animal skins tanned to perfection, fiberglass, and the detailed attentions of a perfectionist to fit together everything without a single nail or screw. Museum goers experienced the room by walking through it and actually touching the surfaces, as if to confirm this was no mirage. The exhibition remains on display in Wood’s private studio near the San Antonio International Airport.
Collectors interested in viewing Wood’s art or furniture can contact him via his website or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Master cabinetmaker John O’Brien can be contacted at email@example.com. Or you can wait for the next show and a fresh look at new work.