A painter for a half century, Bonnie Ford Woit has titled her recent work “Looking Up,” suggesting the perspective one has when gazing at the sky from beneath trees. Yet Woit has always been looking up, whether it is to see the light through the branches of a tall oak or the glimmer of hope for a peaceful resolution to conflict.
In March, Woit traveled to Iran with two other peace activists on a trip organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith organization promoting “grassroots diplomacy” among people of countries in conflict. The group visited Tehran, as well as historic religious and cultural centers outside the capital. “Every chance I got, I told the people we met that I felt that the politics between our two countries could change and that there was a real openness with President Obama to diplomacy as the primary tool of foreign policy,” she says. “I felt that was important for them to understand.”
Five years ago, Woit joined a Presbyterian delegation to Palestine organized by the Christian Peacemaker Teams, staying with Palestinian families in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Jenin. “At the time, Israel was building the West Bank wall,” she recalls. “I started to see both sides of this conflict, which is essential when you are trying to be a peacemaker.”
A believer in the “active pacifism” practiced by the Quakers, Woit has long been involved in the peace move- ment in the United States. She recalls how she felt at a rally in June 1982 at the United Nations, where a million people marched in support of a nuclear weapons freeze. “I remem- ber feeling such hope to see so many people there,” she says. Woit sensed a similar optimism in her encounters with Palestinians and Iranians. “I think it gives them hope, too, to know they are not forgotten,” she says.
As an abstract painter who has shown and sold her work internationally, Woit also has explored themes of peace and reconciliation. For an exhibition at the U.N., “Regeneration: Rebuilding Torn Societies,” she created “Ashwood Spring,” which she described as “a spring forest painted on two segments of a large ash tree which died from disease but is now reborn into a painting, creating the new from the old—regeneration.”
Woit continues to draw inspiration from her relation- ship with nature. “In my work the trees are symbols,” she writes. “They are also emissaries from nature leading me into a relationship with its forces: its unity, light and beauty. The paint represents the human part of the relationship.”
A resident of New York City, Woit draws in black and white in Central Park and on her various trips, noting colors on the back of each drawing. She returns to her studio to paint, using both native and “equivalent” colors, as did Matisse, to evoke particular emotions. Coming full circle, Woit recalls playing under the oak trees surrounding her childhood home in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. “I’ve always been looking up into the trees,” she says. “I’m right up there in my imagination.”
—DOROTHY E. WRIGHT