A Tribute to Robert Wood
Kent Social Services' manager Christie Anderson shares her experiences with artist.
Editor's note: The following was written by Christie Anderson, manager of Kent Social Services, where Robert Wood regularly attended the hot meals program. Anderson told Kent Patch she was saddened by the news of Wood's death Sunday and felt compelled to reflect upon what she had learned from knowing him.
Without knowing him, it would be tempting to pass judgment on Robert Wood. His appearance was unkempt, giving the impression that he was oblivious to the world around him. As we all know, appearances can be deceiving.
Robert was, indeed, engaged with the world around him. He was a keen observer with a thirst for intellectual stimulation. Whether in the back pew of the church or on a park bench, Robert was constantly sketching his immediate surroundings. He was a man totally in the present, interpreting life around him in vivid colors.
My first conversation with Robert took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, where he sold his art work during coffee hour. I had come to realize that he was not one to initiate a conversation or engage in idle small talk.
Consequently, I was surprised when in responding to my inquiry about the motivation behind selecting to paint about a farmer in a field with ducks, Robert shared a lengthy discourse about the life of Vietnam peasants.
Over the years and many conversations, I came to recognize how well-read he was, especially in the areas of philosophy, art history, mythology and health. Robert relished a good intellectual debate, especially if his sparring partner was equally knowledgeable with the topic. I was no match for his keen intellect.
Robert certainly had his shortcomings. All of us are haunted to some degree by inner discords, but for Robert, his challenges manifested themselves in very outward, visible ways.
On bad days, he would have trouble walking, sometimes shuffling back and forth, unable to propel himself forward. This was particularly acute when he was stepping off of curbs to cross a street, which posed a hazard for drivers and himself.
Robert occasionally uttered obscenities aloud for no apparent reason. When I brought this to his attention at Kent Social Services, he didn’t seem to be aware of his behavior and my drawing attention to it didn’t stop its occurrence. His unconscious outbursts made him appear angry and his disheveled hair and beard gave him the appearance of a wild man, prompting fear from those who didn’t know him.
In actuality, Robert was an unassuming man who had no malicious intent toward anyone. Sadly, around Kent, Robert’s reputation as an eccentric wanderer shadowed his enormous talent as an award-winning artist.
I read somewhere that an author suggested that perhaps eccentric people are incarnations of God, for they challenge us to look deeper for their divinity, which is masked by behaviors that put them at the margins of society. Robert did, indeed, challenge this community to look beyond the gruff exterior for his hidden talents and wisdom.
The word “grace” is defined as undeserved blessings from God. My minister, Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, points out that in modeling God’s example, some people, more than others, require us to work harder at extending grace to them because they evoke fear in us. As Rev. Carvill-Ziemer noted, sometimes loving someone takes courage.
This is the lesson that I have taken from knowing Robert Wood. He taught me, and others in the Kent community, that we mustn’t be quick to judge another human being.
When we take the deliberate steps to set aside our fears of people perceived as different, a world of discovery opens for us. Mutual understanding begins when we lower our defenses and encounter our common humanity.
I feel fortunate to have known Robert. I am certain that others would agree. Robert’s presence in Kent prompted a community-wide exercise in greeting a person behind his unconventional facade. The community responded with genuine care.
Many Kentites were blessed to have known Robert and he, in turn, was blessed to have been embraced by many in the Kent community.