Artist, Professor (1957— )
Tilly Woodward is an artist whose creations, inspired by global social problems, offer both dialogue and healing, and show that tragedies and triumphs of all kinds can happen to anyone, and affect everyone. Tilly Woodward is also the founder and director of the Pella Community Art Center, and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Central College.
Woodward grew up in Illinois and Missouri, earning her MFA in sculpture at the University of Kansas in 1982. In school, her work had been very personal. That changed when she saw photographs of children, killed in a political battle, laid out in rows for burial. She writes, “It was a pivotal moment for me in which I started to become aware of a world larger than myself….” This discovery led to “Children as Victims,” a series of large pastel drawings taken from the disturbing photographs. Her change in art direction led to the I-70 Project in 1985, an installation of ten painted billboards which lined route I-70 from St. Louis to Kansas City. The billboards depicted events of worldwide historical importance, from the Holocaust to certain boxing matches. By placing the images in the Midwest, far away in time and distance from where the events took place, Woodward asked people to consider them as ethical dilemmas that concern everyone.
After moving to Pella, Iowa in 1990, Woodward's art widened in scope and intention. She felt that “It no longer seemed enough to merely point out a problem without offering some step toward a positive solution.” In “Portraits of Dubuque,” a response to racism, she drew portraits of diverse individuals, nominated for having performed a good deed or act of kindness. Woodward hoped the project would “help people recognize each other as individuals and better recognize human kindness regardless of race, gender, age, faith, or economic background.” Her “AIDS Portrait Project,” combining portraits with words, gave a voice to Iowans living with AIDS. In her community, Woodward had heard it said, “AIDS couldn't happen here because we live in a small, Christian town. I also heard it said that AIDS was a judgment from God, and I wanted my children and others to learn that AIDS can happen anywhere, and that all people deserve compassion and dignity in sickness and death.”
An ongoing project from 2004 is the Ribbon Monument. In its initial installation, victims of rape and sexual abuse were invited to write their stories on ribbons that were posted on thin metal poles. As with Buddhist prayer flags and Tibetan Thankas, when the ribbons are moved by wind or a passerby, the story is sent out into the world. Now, the installation changes depending on the site where it is shown. With this project, Woodward hopes to end the silent suffering of these victims, so often doubted, even blamed for what happened to them. As Woodward writes, “This way the stories are told, they are visible, and they are moved as prayers for healing by the wind.”
Equally important as her political art, is her involvement with the Pella Art Community Center. Since its creation in 1990, the Center has been very successful, serving art students of all ages, from small children to seniors. In 2006 alone, the Center had over 17,000 participants, a feat made more remarkable considering Pella itself is a town of 10,000 people. Here, students are invited to work together with each other, with volunteers, and with local and visiting artists. Whatever the participants want to create, opportunity, supplies, and support are at the Center. There is truly a sense of community here, a place where everyone can come together for creative expression.