Jo Wood paints, but not with a brush.
Instead, she prefers to use a needle and thread to bring to life the colorful northern landscapes that inspire her work. By sewing tiny glass beads onto felted backgrounds that she needles herself, Wood creates colorful, visceral “paintings” that speak to a life well lived, creating with fiber and engaging with the natural world.
“They all have a story,” says Wood, referring to her beaded works, “a lot of times it’s something that I see while out in the woods, something that sparks my imagination or feels like it needs to be memorialized.”
It is not just felting and beadwork that defines Wood’s work as an artist. Wood got her start on the North Shore in the 1980s and 1990s sewing leather and fur, and first got into beadwork out of a desire to add color to her fur and leather wares.
She continues to practice the fur and leather making craft by teaching courses each year at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais. Her Expedition Footwear: Making Hide & Canvas Mukluks course is extremely popular, and books up fast the two to three times a year that she offers it.
“[Making Hide & Canvas Mukluks] is all about understanding leather, learning a few things about sewing leather, and the pattern making process,” says Wood. “It’s important that the pattern my students make for their mukluks fits them, because it’s a process that they can use to make other things like slippers and other forms of leather footwear.”
“If it wasn’t fun for me, I wouldn’t do it,” adds Wood. “It’s just like beadwork. I love what I do because if I didn’t, I would do something else. It’s how I know that I have the right job.”
Wood was born in Berwyn, Illinois in 1952, and spent her early years exploring the woods in her own backyard.
“Where I grew up in Illinois,” says Woods, “we had a forest preserve right out the back door. I always loved being in the woods, with the trees, the flowers, with all the animals. It was, and has always been, the pull of my life.”
Creating with a needle and thread also played a pivotal role in Wood’s early upbringing. The passion for fiber inspired in her by her mother and grandmother is one that would guide Wood through the rest of her life.
“I come from people who sewed,” says Wood. “As a young girl I watched my mother sew, I watched my grandmother sew, knit and crotchet, and being around all of that as a kid I just couldn’t wait to get a needle and thread and start doing it myself.”
Wood’s first job out of high school was working at a leather shop, where she first learned to sew leather. Wood loved her work sewing the “long fringes” of the 1960s, and after a few years she decided to go back to school to study weaving and studio arts at Northern Illinois University in 1970.
Despite her Illinois upbringing, Wood always knew that her true home lay somewhere farther north.
“Pretty much all my adult life, starting when I was a teenager,” says Wood, “I felt like I was going to move north. I don’t know what it was, but it was always there, this feeling that I would go north someday.”
Today—35 years since Wood first moved to Cook County—she continues to live out her dream as an artist on the North Shore. She lives in a small home that she designed herself on 20 acres of land just north of Grand Marais, a home that is, according to Wood, “just what she needs,” with the downstairs serving as her living area, the upstairs as her studio, and her backyard the forest.
When Wood first moved to the North Shore, she made ends meet by partnering with a friend who had been making musher hats and mittens and had a “line on some fur.” Wood loved the work, but she regretted the lack of color involved in the process.
“I [sewed leather and fur] for quite a while,” says Wood, “but the whole time I wanted more color. So, I thought, ‘I really like the native, floral beadwork, maybe I’ll try something like that?’ which I did, but what I really wanted to bead were the flowers that I saw in the woods.”
“So, I started beading flowers,” continues Wood, “and I decided that if I could bead flowers, then I could bead a tree, and if I could bead a tree, then I could bead the whole forest, and off I went.”
Given how hard it is to sew beads onto leather, Wood started using wool as the “canvas” for her beadwork. For several years, Wood was able to source her colorful felted backgrounds from a lady in Illinois. As her friend grew older, however, she stopped felting, so Wood had to figure out how to do that herself too.
“After [my friend] stopped felting,” says Wood, “I learned to do my own needle felting—both dry and wet—and realized what freedom it gave me to make the backgrounds for my pieces exactly how I wanted them.”
“Dry felting is kind of like painting,” continues Wood, “where you’re using little colored wool fibers to get the background that you want. Wet felting, on the other hand, looks a little more watercolor-like and has a more blended feel than needle felting.”
In addition to her classes at the North House in both leathermaking and felting and bead embroidery, Wood will be opening her home during this year’s Art Along the Lake Studio Tour, Sept. 23-Oct. 2, to show her work and “help people understand the process, if they care to.”
For more information on Jo Wood’s art, her classes and upcoming exhibitions, visit her website at: jowoodbeads.com.