Skip to content

Capturing the symbolic messages of nature (5 photos)

In this Arts and Culture feature we visit the studio of artist Sylvia D. Woods who is using renaissance symbolism to communicate through art

It has been said that a picture speaks a thousand words and in paintings by Sylvia D. Woods many of those words are from an old forgotten language created for people who couldn’t read.

“To be honest words probably inspire me more than visual,” said Woods. “I probably should have gone into words but I found art challenging and I love it.” 

Her smock and pallet were covered with the colours she chose for her recent Orchids and Oceans collection. An unfinished piece rested on the easel. 

Woods stared for a moment at an area on the canvas before she gently lifted her brush and applied a sliver of white paint along the edge of a vibrant yellow orchid petal. 

“This painting for example, all of the flowers in it have symbolic meanings,” she said. “I have almost put together a poem and if you know the meaning of them all it comes together.” 

The placement and arrangement of the orchids set against the black background employs the chiaroscuro technique made famous by Renaissance master Caravaggio. She also uses a similar but more contemporary Japanese photographic technique called Bokeh.   

Both techniques are meant to evoke a response and draw your eye to specific images and elements of the piece.

It is all very deliberate and she commits a lot of time to research before she selects a subject or applies any paint. 

“Some people say a painting should speak for itself but I think they go together,” said Woods. “Visual things are a type of language. I recognize when people want to own a piece, it is about how it visually relates to them, but for me finding the meanings and bringing them forward is almost like creating a new visual dictionary for forgotten symbols.”

Woods shares her studio on Wyndham Street with two other well-known local artists.

“I share the space with Ryan Price and Werner Zimmerman,” she said. “They are absolute gentlemen and really wonderful guys. My space is this centre section. I am surrounded by two men, just like my childhood.”  

She was born in Mount Forest in 1967, the middle child and only girl of three siblings. It was a time when the arts were poorly funded in public schools so she had to make an extra effort to follow her muse. 

“I went to Mount Forest District High School with 300 students but no art so I did some correspondence courses in art and went a year to what is now Tyndale University,” she said. “Then I went to Centennial College for a one year pre-art program that kind of replaced what I didn’t get through high school.” 

She went on to study for four years at the Ontario College of Arts and that included a year at an art campus in Florence, Italy. It was during that time that she learned to translate the hidden language of symbols used by Renaissance artists. 

“At the time when people were illiterate they could read these images so the artist could say more than just the obvious,” said Woods. “In a painting of Madonna and Child, you’ll notice the Christ child might be holding a pomegranate and at the time they would know that meant eternal life.” 

The symbols helped people understand the meaning of a painting and the often spiritual message the artist was trying to convey. As time went on artists broadened their lexacon and used symbols to express more earthly ideas and emotions.

“We don’t necessarily remember those things,” said Woods. “We know the apple. We know the olive branch for peace. In Victorian times they had books on floriology, a floral language that said what each of the flowers meant and they passed bouquets back and forth that had secret messages. Back then you couldn’t really speak openly about relationships so it was a way of communicating through symbols.” 

Woods remained fascinated by this secret language but didn’t incorporate it into her own art for many years. 

She is married to teacher and storyteller Brad Woods and they have three children Charlie, 22, Porter, 19 and Lily, 17. She worked as a medical secretary for four years during the 1990s.

“I left that to go with Brad when he did his teacher’s training in London England,” she said. “Our son was born there and when we came back I raised three kids. My studio was at home at the time.”

They moved to Guelph 17 years ago and in 2011 she began an artist-in-residence program at Lakeside Church. 

“That’s when I started in the direction of the kind of work I do now,” she said. “I did  a lot of portraiture before that. I changed my direction and started doing portraits of natural elements emphasizing their symbolic meaning through history.” 

She moved into the studio on Wyndham Street in 2012 and has continued to explore the secret language of symbols 

A visit to the orchid show at the Bronx Botanical Gardens with her daughter last March inspired her latest collection. 

“That seems to be where I am right now with Orchids and Oceans,” she said. “There is a similarity between the way an orchid kind of hangs in mid air and how the animals float and move through water. The shapes are so similar so when they hang together it is an interesting juxtaposition of the forms.”

She had rave reviews for her show at the Kitchener Public Library Art Gallery in October and pieces from the exhibit are now hanging at the Dock On Queen in Toronto.  

“Everyone likes secrets,” said Woods.“I am in the process of thinking of what the next big batch of new work is going to look like.”