On Robert “Woody” Woodruff, Zen, and the Art of Problem Solving

April 21, 2017 by

I’ll do anything for anybody’s art. Anything. Anything… within reason.

-Woody, WSW Maintenance Mogul

1. an important or powerful person, especially in the motion picture or media industry.
yms:            1. magnate, tycoon, VIP, notable, personage, baron, captain, king, lord, grandee, nabob, etc.
2. a steam locomotive with three pairs of driving wheels and one pair of smaller wheels in the front.


I’m searching my cabinets for an empty Chock Full O’ Nuts can to act as a tomb for the potentially rabid bat who came to my stoop to die. Robert “Woody” Woodruff is standing outside, patiently waiting to move the bat to its final resting place. This bat incident isn’t the first time I’ve run like Lassie across WSW’s campus to retrieve Woody so he can solve the day’s catastrophe. “I guess we better get Woody” is a commonly heard phrase at WSW.

He’s a Monty Pythonesque choice of rescuer, a nest of grey hair sitting on a bespectacled wizard, squinting at me through the sawdust of his latest carpentry assignment. He always has something downbeat to say about the task at hand. On our way back to my stoop he turned to me and said “you know, I’m the only person I know who’s been bitten by a bat.” I half expected him to pull a couple of empty coconut shells out of his pockets and start riding an imaginary horse.

I watch as Woody bat-whispers my unfortunate chiropteran into the Chock Full O’ Nuts can. As he walks the can off into the woods, I wonder if he and the bat are having some kind of inaudible consultation. Plans for a miniature stretcher made of twigs and leaves, maybe?

Standing at entrance, L to R: Barbara Leoff Burge, Brenda Dean, Tatana Kellner, Patty Tyrol, dog, Ann Kalmbach, Ariel Dougherty, and Woody

Woody first became WSW’s Maintenance Mogul through CETA, or the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Richard Nixon passed the original law in 1973, with the intent of training workers and placing them in jobs in public service. The Neighborhood Arts Program was an extension of CETA, which specifically matched skilled workers with arts initiatives.

At least one of those matches was made in heaven, as Woody came to WSW shortly after WSW’s founding in 1974. Since then, he’s been relied upon for an array of seemingly arbitrary tasks requiring varied expertise, from carpentry and electrical work, to mentoring, animal control, and mechanics. It wasn’t until interviewing Woody for this piece that I came to understand the coherence of his role and perspective.

One of Woody’s great joys is working with young people, in particular, instructing young women in the use of power tools and heavy machinery. He told me a story about a “skinny intern from Manhattan” afraid of using a Gravely walk-behind tractor. Woody described the Gravely as “not super safe, and super nasty.” With his encouragement, the intern mastered the Gravely, becoming, as Woody put it, “drunk with power.” While I’ve heard few stories so pro-female empowerment, when asked if he’s a feminist Woody answers “I’m just here to help.” We need all the allies we can get.  

It’s important to note that Woody intentionally prefers to work with artists. He is a problem-solver for the arts. “I’m happy to fix the car and I’m happy to move the bat,” he says, “but what’s more fun is when Tana says, ‘I need a roll of paper and need it to roll out at one foot every three minutes’ and then I have to figure out how to do that. That’s fun. You have to get little gears and look into motors, and you get to make mistakes. And that’s great fun. I like working with artists because they want to do things that are fun to figure out. And lots of times, someone will want to do some piece of art, and they don’t know you can’t do it. But the thing is you can do it, if you think about it, the ignorance of what can’t be done helps you temp it. And I think you can do it, you really can do almost anything. Sometimes it takes money, but most of the time it just takes thinking.” [The work referenced above is Poisoned Well by Tatana Kellner; view a video of it here]

Woody (yellow shirt) helps unload an offset press into the studio

Woody describes problem-solving as a movement from the impossible to the possible, a process of discovery in which life’s limitations are stretched to elimination. To Woody, problem-solving is a joy, a meditation, an art. It’s suddenly hard to understand why it wouldn’t be. Big or small, life is made of doings and undoings, arrangements of circumstance. Art, poetry, love, mechanics, electricity, mentorship– it’s all the same thing. Each day is an attempt at grace within these doings and undoings, and Woody is a wizard of that grace.

Woody (left) at the Flying Objects Festival, 1979

It’s fitting, then, that he’s also a Tai Chi instructor. For those unfamiliar, Tai Chi is a Chinese defensive martial art dating back to somewhere around 1580, also a form of meditation. Its slow movements and “push-offs” between partners are powered by what Woody describes as an energetic “filling” of that which is “empty” and emptying of that which is full. As Woody describes it, the weighted movement of our bodies becomes like moving sand or water. In his words, “Tai Chi, the movement, teaches you to be in balance. It’s martial art in that you move away from things without thinking, but you don’t disconnect. It’s just like when tires are spinning on a car in the ice, you push it sideways. It’s the same thing with Tai Chi. When someone’s moving, you can ease them off-balance a little bit, because it’s like an incline plane.”  

In a push-off, two practitioners push away from each other with their palms. The trick, Woody says, is to shift the weight of the body enough to push off, but not enough to be relying on the other person’s push to keep you upright. “Never count on another person for anything” he says. I tell him a lot of people count on him for a lot of things. His reply, “I’ll show them in the end.”

He hasn’t shown anyone yet. The Woody Way is something we can all learn from. To just be here to help, with minimal expectation of reciprocity or gain, and to approach the solving of problems as creative practice and meditative joy. The Woody Way has been the driving engine behind WSW’s daily unfolding for decades, and in honoring Woody, we encourage ourselves to embody it.

woody 1

 Please join us in celebrating Robert “Woody” Woodruff
at WSW’s 10th Annual Gala & Auction, Sunday
May 21, 2017 at the Senate Garage, Kingston, NY.
Find more info and purchase tickets here.

About the author:
Julia Hickey joined the WSW team in 2015 as Grant Writer and Development Associate. She received her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz in 2012. Since then, she’s been drifting around the United States in pursuit of various impulsive adventures. She fell into grant writing while working with a small nonprofit in New Mexico, and continued writing grants in Nashville. Now, Julia spends her time reporting on WSW’s fabulous programs and honing her nonprofit management skills. If she’s not at WSW, she is probably snuggling with her dog, writing poetry, cooking, or eating.