Jody Wood Is Taking Care

Social Pharmacy (Installation View), Skövde Art Museum, Sweden

Jody Wood uses mediums of social practice, video, photography, and performance in her art practice. On a brisk January afternoon in Brooklyn, we discussed the joys of transformation and the metrics to determine success and trauma in healing. Wood’s recent work re-imagines routines in poverty support agencies, aiming to sculpt power dynamics and relationship networks and resist stigmas surrounding poverty. Her solo show Collecting Health at Open Source Gallery features Social Pharmacy (2021-ongoing), a project that redefines public health as a collaborative performance and asks what healing rituals can be found in simple acts of generosity between members of society and by utilizing the natural world around us. Collecting Health at Open Source Gallery runs from February 10 to March 22, 2024.

Artist Jody Wood

Michele Jaslow: Success can be determined by many things, and everyone uses both outward and personal scales to determine their own goals and review their efforts. What matters most to you?

Jody Wood: Work ethic, determination, and fortitude matter the most for success. This is different from ambition, which I associate with the ego, which may bring you success but at your own peril. Talent is important, too, but it’s just raw material. Every career will have ups and downs, and there are always a thousand reasons to give up. Determination and work ethic might even take you into a field outside of art, which could bring even more success and fulfillment. The goal is simply to keep going forward in a direction that excites you and to do it with vigor. 
I would also include applying persistence to complete projects that you care about. Staying in the game. Remember that not having advantages, perceived or real, does not mean you will not get anywhere.

Michele: Please share a bit more about how to understand yourself as an artist. What personal metrics do you use to determine forward movement in your art practice?

Jody: I seek novelty and always need to be doing something that terrifies me a little bit. It is about working from a place of uncertainty. When beginning a new project, I’m often traveling, jumping into a new place and a new context, not knowing what I am going to make before I get there. Part of trying something new is accepting the possibility that it might fail.

Risk taking in some way is important but problematic with socially engaged projects. My projects include working with individuals, and there are ethics to consider. When you bring on others you are asking other people to take a risk with you.

Beauty in Transition Portraits, 29″x41″ Archival Inkjet of Dibond

I have a project, Beauty in Transition, an artistic project that established a pop-up mobile hair salon providing beauty services, including a hair wash, cut, color, and/or style service to willing participants living in transitional housing. At one point, there was a film crew documenting it, and folks who weren’t present and weren’t aware of how the documentation was being navigated were questioning the intention of the filming and, by extension, the project. Questions about the perception of an outsider coming in to use the circumstances of others became an issue to address. It became a question of where the artists stand in socially engaged projects. I don’t buy into the idea that artists don’t have a right to engage with homelessness or people whose life conditions are different from their own. We all live in this society, and it is the responsibility of the artist to engage with the issues facing this society. It is important to question and push back on this narrow idea that we should all stay in our lane and instead attempt to expand notions of kinship and care across class, cultural, generational, and political divisions.

Beauty in Transition. 2014 ABOG Fellow Jody Wood brings her mobile beauty salon to nine homeless shelters over three months in New York City. Credit: Rava Films.

Michele: Do you have any tools or practices you use to support your forward movement?
I started taking ice baths in the morning. After that, I think, ok, I did the hardest thing, so everything else I do today is easier. Ice baths put your body in a survival state. Every other challenge is just another challenge.

Michele: Your work addresses themes of trauma. Ice baths seem like self-induced trauma.

Jody: Some speak about instances in everyday life; they use the word trauma, and that may be proportionately inappropriate. It does not honor people who have real trauma. There are some other words to describe everyday experiences – like disappointment – that do not weaponize trauma. It impacts our tolerance for conflict or negative experiences.

Trauma means something. Trauma has a definition. Trauma is an experience where, when triggered, your mind goes offline. Some therapists say if you go through a trauma and the trauma becomes triggered, it’s helpful to verbally describe what’s happening to get your brain online with the physical experience you’re having. It helps your brain get online with this experience. Trauma disrupts your worldview, and you then have to rethink it. 

If someone is going through trauma without having people or institutions respond with empathy and understanding, it exacerbates trauma. If you go into a hospital and are not treated well, it could exacerbate the issue. It needs to be dealt with in an empathetic way.

In the exhibition Collecting Health strangers will be in the gallery space that share remedies and invited to share their own remedies. The show is a library of remedies. 

Social Pharmacy at Whitebox Gallery, NYC

Michele: What brings you the most joy in your studio?

Jody: When I get to see something transform, it brings me delight. It could be a relationship, a perspective, or a material. Transformation not only entails change, but it also involves the revelation of something’s deeper essence.

Michele: What were your first steps on the road to creating your latest iteration of Social Pharmacy (2021-ongoing) at Open Source Gallery?

Jody: The precursor to work I’ll be showing at Open Source came from a unique residency I did in 2021 that was a partnership between coLAB Arts and Elijah’s Promise, a nonprofit in New Brunswick, NJ, working to alleviate food insecurity. During my residency, the subject of health came up organically because of the links between poverty and poor health. I talked with many people who were uninsured or had Medicaid and no longer trusted hospitals because of how they had been mistreated by them. They were finding ways to avoid hospitals, using the Emergency Room in place of primary care. This means that people who are impoverished are less likely to participate in preventative care and are getting sicker. 

A lot of my work over the past 10 years explores the institutions that are meant to repair our health and the universal need for care. Health is a multivalent subject that includes social, economic, and environmental realms in addition to the physical body and mind. The institutions that are meant to support health can include a wide range of social services, including healthcare and anti-poverty support. How service provision is perceived and delivered is a touchpoint of my artistic practice.

Open Source Gallery installation detail

Michele: What artists influence you?

Jody: I am most inspired by research in other fields outside of art, such as Martha Fineman’s legal theory and Mary Douglas’s anthropology. I am also inspired by taboos, stigmas, contradictions, and social organization. For community-based art, I like Anne Basting. For critical practice, I like Renzo Martens; for visual practice, I like Stephen Willats.

Social Pharmacy detail

Michele: Describe your research process when starting a project/new body of work.

Jody: I am interested in support systems at the intersection of poverty, trauma, and care. I start with the premise that we are all vulnerable. Sickness, loss, and suffering are going to happen to most of us. It’s how society responds to that moment that exacerbates trauma or facilitates healing. I look at social response within institutions, creating work that runs parallel to service provision by partnering with different homeless service agencies, and I also make work outside institutions by initiating community care projects.

Observation is a big part of my research process. I often conduct interviews as a starting place when I’m researching a new subject or starting a new partnership with an institution.

Michele: Are there any misconceptions about your work that you would like to clarify?
Sometimes, my work is perceived as altruistically helping people, which is a misreading. I think of my work as creating structures that people can enter into, which causes bonds and relationships to form, which persuades people to care more for each other, or at least persuades them to consider the complexities within care. But thinking of the work as simply ‘helping people’ misses many layers and subtleties going on in the work.

Michele: What organizations or individuals have supported you along the way? 

Jody: It’s rare to find people willing to invest in new, unproven projects. There have been certain people who were willing to support me at critical moments and were instrumental in my growth as an artist. They have taken risks by supporting new projects that are in the beginning stages and by giving me the courage to try something new. I consider myself indebted to these folks: 

Martha Fineman has been a compass for many projects and has written about Social Pharmacy. Jan Cohen-Cruz has been my long-term mentor, and her husband, Dionisio Cruz, has been my project advisor. Chad Kautzer, through RedLine in Denver, was instrumental in supporting the first iteration of Beauty in Transition as a mobile salon. Deb Fisher, through A Blade of Grass, has been an ongoing mentor and has continually supported my work. Nicole J. Caruth is a curator/writer who brought Choreographing Care to Charlotte, North Carolina, and she also wrote about my recent project, Social Pharmacy. Tod Lippy, who runs Esopus Foundation, commissioned the first prototype for Choreographing Care in Kingston, NY. Also, my advisors in graduate school include Maria Velasco, Cima Katz, and So Yeon Park, who gave me courage in a very critical stage as a young artist. 

Michele: How do you address rejection?

Jody: I see rejection as an interesting dance. Sometimes, it’s helpful to use disappointment from rejection to double down on my determination. An obstacle like rejection could bring me energy. But if it happens repeatedly, especially around a specific project, it can also be a signal that I need to adjust and change what I’m doing. So, it can be valuable feedback to change something I’m doing, or not to change what I’m doing, but to find the right audience. So, I try to pay attention to many factors, including rejection.

Michele: Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?

Jody: My grandmother’s necklace. It was an elk’s tooth she found in Montana. My dad made the tooth into a necklace and gave it to me when she died last year. A thief ripped it off my neck at a flea market in Cape Town recently. I wish I still had it.
Michele: What is the greatest challenge of our time?
Jody: Finding meaning through what Hannah Arendt (an American historian, philosopher, and influential political theorist) describes as a ‘contemplative life’ within a world that reduces identities to superficial tribal affiliations, extracts labor of the many for the profits of the few and alienates us from face to face interaction and our own bodies.

In hospitals, they use the label GOMER. Being called a GOMER (Get Out of My Emergency Room), you are sized up, and assumptions are made to determine how the hospital staff treat you. This happens to the homeless and those on Medicaid. The challenge is to get to a place where people get treated, and everyone is taking care of each other even though they don’t know each other.

Social Pharmacy production began as a collaboration with coLAB Arts and Elijah’s Promise

About the artist: Jody Wood is an American artist working in mediums of social practice, video, photography, and performance. Her itinerant public projects address health, care, and poverty and have been supported by prestigious institutions including A Blade of Grass, Rema Hort Mann Foundation, Esopus Foundation, an ArtPlace America Initiative at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, the Fundação Luso-Americana para o Desenvolvimento Grant Award (FLAD) in Portugal, and through residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts, Yaddo, and Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture. Her work has been presented internationally in solo exhibitions at Skövde Art Museum and Norrtälje Konsthall in Sweden, WhiteBox Gallery front window in NYC, Blaffer Art Museum project space in Houston, and group exhibitions and screenings at Manchester School of Art, UK; Parrish Museum of Art in Water Mill, NY; and Rond-point projects in Marseille, FR. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, The Art Newspaper, and MSNBC.

About the writer: Michele Jaslow is a NYC-based independent art curator and writer. A pioneer shaping the current visual arts landscape in Brooklyn, Michele is the founder and former Gallery Director of Brooklyn Artists Gym; worked with Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Arts Council, BRIC, Coney Island Museum, Waterfront Museum, Wagmag, and Photoville and serves on the Open Source Gallery board. Michele holds an MFA Cranbrook, BFA Purchase, and post-graduate NYU New Media. She completed the Appraisers Association of America’s CASP and is USPAP compliant. Michele is a member of American Alliance of Museums and Association of Art Museum Curators. Her writing focus is contemporary art, including review for academic journal Leonardo/ISAST, MIT Press.
@radarcurator |