The Woodwife

"The Woodwife", a painting by Jessica Maring

“The Woodwife” was the first major painting I produced, in 1998.  I had just moved from an ugly, noisy, dirty city, to the forest in the Santa Cruz mountains, and I reveled in the natural, beautiful world that surrounded me.  The view in every direction was of trees–redwood, fir, pine, oak and manzanita, the air smelled clean, deer grazed around the house and looked in the windows, and small creatures explored the garden and the decks every evening.  I was overwhelmed with gratitude, and spent every sunny day outside, tending the garden or painting on the deck.  I felt the forest and its inhabitants as a presence, and wanted to paint an expression of what that spirit of the forest felt like to me.

One day I came across a story about a woodwife in a book of mythology, and it appealed to me immensely, because she’s the spirit of the forest.  She’s the Green Woman, the counterpart of the more well known Green Man, and the Wild Woman, a link to the archetypal Mother Earth.  She’s the dryad of Greco-Roman mythology, the more ancient Artemis, the woodwife of Sweden, and the elf maiden of Scandinavia and Germany.  All are spirits of the forest, the protectors, inhabitants or spirits of trees and sacred groves. In some of the tales the woodwife is a trickster, seducing men into harm; in others, she is a benevolent spirit who rewards those who respect the forest.  The legends are many, but the common thread is that she is fey, a changeling more animal than human despite the somewhat human aspect of her appearance, and essentially uninterested in the affairs of men except as they might serve her interests or amuse her.  

My painting is an image of the legend that says she exists invisibly in the heart of an oak tree, but at sunset can emerge, take human form, and walk about the forest.  So here, she emerges from her tree, adorned with the elements and symbols of nature–plant, animal and bird.

The original model for the basic shape of the face was Isabella Rossellini, although I’m sure no one would recognize her in the finished Woodwife.  The eyes are rounded and the pupils elongated to more resemble those of an animal, and the shape of her nose is altered to bring the lower half of her face forward, vaguely suggesting a muzzle.  The branch of berries came from an unknown tree in my garden, the blue feather from one of the numerous stellar jays that came to my feeders (I would find a feather on the ground every now and then),  and the pale owl feather was a gift that was left on my deck, perhaps placed there by a woodwife.



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