I first met Ross Woodman when I was an undergrad at Western almost 40 years ago. Later, in 1981, Ross helped me make a documentary film about his friend Jack Chambers, Tracks and Gestures.
Today, I have come full circle as Ross is the subject of a portrait documentary.
But why make a film about an English prof?
Sure, he was a great teacher. His pure artistry as a lecturer made him unforgettable. But he was also one of the most influential Canadian art critics of the 20th Century, an internationally recognized iconoclast in English Romantic literature and a passionately original interpreter of Jung and Freud.
Woodman, who died in March 2014 at the age of 91, taught at Western for nearly 50 years. He studied and argued with Northrop Frye, Canada’s most celebrated intellectual. His wife, Marion, is an internationally acclaimed Jungian author credited with bringing the feminine into depth psychology in a way that Jung was never able to do. Her life partnership with Ross was fiery, marked by powerful breakdown and breakthrough moments.
Together, they were a formidable, often astonishing couple.
“A social evening with Ross and Marion was like a bizarre field trip to a moonlit realm where you chewed on eternal truth like sugared almonds and watched the curtains being drawn to reveal a backyard to a reality that you hardly knew existed – and they actually lived in the place,” said one former student at Woodman’s funeral.
As a child during the Depression, Woodman was haunted by illusive prairie horizons. Somewhat estranged from his half-brothers, he hid in a local Winnipeg movie theatre, where he stayed for days watching every film that came to town. His imagination was formed not in books, but in the dream world of Garbo, gangsters and Fred Astaire in Top Hat.
“If you ask me where I came from,” he said, “I came from the movies. I invented myself at the movies.”
When Woodman returned from serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a rear gunner at the end of the Second World War, he believed the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima saved his own life. Back in Winnipeg, he landed a job teaching literature to a group of returning veterans, and the experience of reading poetry with soldiers in the midst of war trauma set the course of his life.
He knew he was one of the lucky ones.
He found his vocation as a teacher of poetry. Focusing on the problem of good and evil in the aftermath of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, he wrote his masters thesis about Satan as ‘The Hero’ rather than ‘The Villain’ of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.
In the 1940s just before the war, Woodman was moved by the progressive vision of the little-known Bah’ai faith, particularly the idea all religions are one. In 1948, he was one of the founders of the Bah’ai in Canada and maintained an uneasy, inquisitive and poetic relation with that faith for the rest of his life.
In a world becoming increasingly secular, pragmatic, utilitarian, Woodman never veered from the trajectory of the imagination. Poetry, he maintained, was a direct path to the divine.
His revelatory way of speaking made some people uncomfortable. He was never more of a voice in the wilderness than when he was writing in mainstream media.
In Business Quarterly, where he served as art editor in the 1970s, he did not write about art as a good investment although he was an astute collector. Instead, he wore his heart on his sleeve, describing the artist’s “intensely visionary consciousness that sees the universe as an extension of one’s own flesh. To identify that awareness, with the act of creation itself, is to celebrate yet again and in yet another form the Incarnation.”
Deeply engaged in the cultural life of London, Ont., he was an attentive witness and midwife of the London art scene in the 1960s, explaining it to the world through his writings in artscanada and Art International. He was close to many of Canada’s most important artists, including Paterson Ewen, Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe and Ron Martin, as well as younger artists in recent years such as Sky Glabush (who also teaches at Western).
At the same time he taught the high art of Coleridge, Shakespeare, Matisse and Eastern mystic poetry, he also championed the diverse, grungy and completely original artists of the Forest City as equally valid forces of inspiration for a disillusioned world.
Woodman was a magical teacher who influenced thousands of students for more than half a century. Their young minds hungered for what he offered in his classroom, a protected space for the imagination. When he said if someone isn’t writing a poem the world comes to an end, they believed him.
Many of his former students say that Woodman inspired them to become writers, artists and educators.
English and Writing Studies professor Joel Faflak, who worked closely with Woodman on his last two books, was also a former student. He remembers being blown away at the beginning of his first class when Woodman opened up the Songs of Innocence.
“It was this act of absolute imagination,” said the Director of Western’s School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities. “This fantasy Blake writes about, of a child appearing on a cloud, and the child talks back to him. What got me was that the man at the front of the room channeling William Blake had no problem with the world of fantasy or imagination whatsoever. For a kid like me, coming from a small town, my mind simply got pried open.”
In the 1990s, the Woodmans went through a long crisis as Marion accepted, and then defeated, a terminal cancer diagnosis. Her last book, Bone, is a meditation on that harrowing experience. After that, they enjoyed many more creative years together until Marion gradually lost her memory to dementia, beginning around 2007.
Ross kept Marion at home until he was no longer capable of looking after her, and she moved to a long-term-care facility in spring 2014. Although he felt he had no choice, Ross was deeply shaken by these events, and died soon afterward.
Woodman’s commitment to the power of living works of art informed his radical vision. As the value of an arts education is increasingly questioned in our culture, his voice remains urgent and timely.
Writing on the occasion of his death, his niece, Siobhan Boa, addressed him as a kind of wizard, a Prospero figure in her memory:
“Lying on your sofa, one arm across your forehead, listening intently with absolute unfaltering focus, absorbing, digesting, contemplating and alchemically transforming everyday tales and histories into great works of art, spinning poetry from prose, making the ordinary extraordinary, carving the sacred from the profane. You are unwittingly weaving magic and muttering spells, everywhere leaving a trail of fine golden stardust.”
Chris Lowry, BA’77, is Toronto-based filmmaker and writer.
Rebel Angel is a portrait documentary by Chris Lowry, BA’77, a Toronto-based filmmaker and writer, about the life and cultural legacy of Ross Woodman (1922-1914). If you would like to support the film, or if you have memories, film footage or pictures of Ross Woodman, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.