Kenneth Wood. Recycling Paper into Art
“Astral views of the cosmos, coral formations, planetary cities, a forest landscape:” the associations and superlatives flow from the viewers as effortlessly as the art of Kenneth Wood seems to come together. The collection in his studio and at his home in Santiago Atitlán, not only pleases the eye, it also gives recycled newspaper new life, plus it generates income for an organization of physically and mentally challenged youth.
Kenneth Wood has called Santiago Atitlán home for the last eight years. As founder of Pueblo a Pueblo, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization dedicated to the empowerment of Guatemalan indigenous communities, he helped start a community hospital in Santiago Atitlán. Later, Kenneth turned his energies to create employment opportunities for challenged Maya youth at ADISA (Asociación de Padres y Amigos de Personas con Discapacidad or Association of Parents and Friends of People with Disabilities), a local non-profit organization, and subsequently this unique art form.
“We started out by creating paper bowls with recycled newspaper,” says Kenneth. “My idea was to provide meaningful and lucrative employment for each person in the group, regardless of the challenges they face individually.” Preparing and creating paper objects requires a large range of skills including: measuring, cutting, ironing, rolling, gluing, folding and counting. The majority of the young adults at ADISA live with developmental challenges as a result of birth defects or early child illnesses. Many are wheelchair-bound, one is legally blind, another an amputee. The complexity of creating paper art provides an opportunity for everyone to make a contribution.
“Teaching and working with these youths is extremely rewarding, not only because they are expanding their capacities by meeting their challenges, but because these individuals work as a team, a community; each pulling his or her weight with joy and excitement; taking great pride in what they have created together,” says Kenneth. On average 15 young adults from ADISA work daily on different paper products. As everyone became more proficient and as more creative ideas emerged from the group, ADISA dropped all its other sheltered workshop activities to concentrate solely on paper skills. “As ADISA’s paper products became more commercially successful, I decided to withdraw from daily involvement and support them by purchasing paper elements for my art.”
Once Kenneth picks up his weekly order of processed paper materials, he retreats to his studio, a traditional stone house with a thatched roof hidden among generous greenery in the Guatemalan highlands. Here, a metal frame is waiting to be filled with thinly rolled paper of all shapes and textures. At the time of my visit, he was working on a large commission for a restaurant on the central square of La Antigua Guatemala as well as a 34-square-foot residential installation.
Kenneth was only nine years old when he begged his parents to send him to his first art class. Since then he has worked with various media, including painting, stained glass and glass blowing. “This work with paper takes me back to childhood with Lincoln Logs and puzzles,” he says, making a sweeping gesture through the studio. “Much of my previous art experiences come together in this unique media. The work, or more accurately said, ‘joy,’ gives me an avenue to meditative expression and a sense of connection beyond the personal. I plug into the creative process and become a vehicle. My job as an artist is to remain open, balanced and receptive so that the un-manifested can take form. When I get lost in the process, I have to admit I get a little scared. That feeling tells me that I am out of my head and something previously unknown and unexpected is about to reveal itself,” he says as he explores the limits of this new art form.
His finished pieces convey a sense of balance, calm aand tranquility. Yet, each creation is made up of thousands of tiny paper pieces that draw the viewer into a complex universe of incredible detail.
During a workweek, Kenneth uses several thousand basic units of paper that ADISA has prepared. Many of the more intricate elements he makes himself in his studio. “I find some irony and pleasure in transforming gory and negative images and stories in old newspapers into something positive and beautiful. There is something elegant about that,” Kenneth says.
His type of art and these designs lend themselves to public art: restaurants, hotel lobbies, office buildings as well as residential art. “It’s comfortable yet mysterious… easy to live with and continuously evocative,” he says. “My home is a virtual gallery and I am both pleased to live with these mysterious works as well as share them with guests in my home.” Besides assignments in major hotels and restaurants and sales to individual collections in Guatemala, Kenneth is expanding his work to include sales and commissions in the United States. “I particularly appreciate the opportunity to travel to the States where I can design and construct larger commissions on site.”
And what inspires his work? “Look,” as we ventured outside his studio and our eyes followed a horizon of three towering volcanoes and jagged mountain ridges, “I have been blessed. I am fortunate enough to live in a paradise on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, while collaborating with special-needs Maya youth and creating environmentally friendly art. This is where my inspiration comes from.”
An exhibition of Kenneth’s work can be seen at Galería Mesón Panza Verde (MAP L4) beginning in mid-March. You are cordially invited to meet the artist and see his latest work at the opening party on March 13th at 5 PM. For more information, visit www.kennethwoodpaper.com.
Photos by: Juan M. Sisay