Locals start crusade to preserve legacy of Kent artist

Photo courtesy of James Vaughan.

Photo courtesy of James Vaughan.

Rabab Al-Sharif

Members of the Kent Community are working to ensure that the legacy of a local artist and Kent icon, Robert E. Wood, is preserved.

Wood, known around town for his cumbersome beard and artwork, died in February from a heart attack at the age of 68. Almost 200 people paid their respects at a memorial service in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, proving his prominence in the community.

Although Wood had a reputation of peculiar behavior, many in the community embraced him, and now some of them want to make sure that he and his artwork are not forgotten.

John Kluth, a local gallery owner and longtime friend of Wood, and Mara DeMattia, a stay-at-home mom with a degree from Aquinas College, are reaching out to the community to start the movement.

The archive would include not only works by Wood, but portraits of him done by other local artists and an oral history project that DeMattia is working on. But before contents and location can be discussed more seriously, they need to raise money, Kluth said.

Right now, Kluth said, the main focus is getting donors and volunteers for the oral history project.

There are some advantages to having a gallery in the community that would feature Wood’s work, Kluth said.

“Kent needs a gallery for local artists’ work that would allow pieces to be exhibited that are interesting enough to bring people from some distances,” Kluth said. “Robert’s work could be the nucleus of that.”

DeMattia is working on cataloguing Wood’s works from binders full of photocopies Wood made of all his art or at least the pieces he thought were significant, Kluth said. Along with the cataloguing, DeMattia has been talking to anyone who knew or met Wood.

Not everything that everyone says can be verified as true, but it might not matter, Kluth said.

“If it’s true that he is a folk hero, and I believe he very well could be based on the definition, what people say is just as important as what is,” Kluth said.

Wood was an artist who practiced his craft every day. Because of this, DeMattia estimates that there could be 12,000 pieces left.

Some of those pieces are in the possession of Kluth, who knew Wood for more than 10 years.

Kluth and DeMattia took some of Robert’s work to the Kent Business and Community Expo and Taste of Kent at Theodore Roosevelt High School last Saturday where they collected 103 signatures on a petition to show community interest to catalog and archive Wood’s artwork. DeMattia hopes to use this information when writing grants to fund the cataloguing process.

This week, they will have a booth downtown at the Main Street Block Party, part of the 6th Annual “Who’s Your Mama?” Earth Day and Environmental Film Festival, where DeMattia said she will focus on Wood’s works that relate to Kent.

Some of Wood’s work includes prominent sketches of people, musicians, audience members and events around the city of Kent, which DeMattia hopes to identify with help from the community this weekend, she said.

She hopes that members of the community will be able to identify the people and events in the images so that she can place them into a timeline of different periods of Wood’s work. At the business expo, five works were identified by people in the community, Kluth said.

DeMattia also hopes to educate the community on why this project is worthwhile, she said.

“For this weekend, I’m trying to put in Robert Wood was a valid artist, and he has a place in art history,” she said. “We can take this artist and his body of work and say to the rest of the art community outside of Kent, Ohio, ‘we have this wonderful treasure of an artist.’”

The community was very warm to Wood over a long period of time, she said.

“A lot of really prominent people really like Robert and gave him beyond food, clothing and shelter, they gave him enrichment far beyond,” she said, mentioning that others would buy or give Wood complimentary tickets to different art events around campus and the community.

DeMattia said that although a lot of people who really embraced Wood are deceased at this point, there is still a good chance that the community will rally to keep his legacy as an artist and Kent icon alive.

“Especially as we educate them and say ‘yes, you really believed in this man for a purpose,’ it wasn’t a joke,” she said.

Contact Rabab Al-Sharif at [email protected].