Rob Woodcox, surrealist fine art photographer and film director, reflects on the experience of having his art exhibited at Art Basel Miami by Art Republic and SaveArtSpace at SCOPE. We trace his early journey into photography to learn his influences included surrealist painters including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Picasso, and Leonora Carrington. Surrealist photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Tim Walker, Eugenio Recuenco, and Gregory Crewdson helped inspire Rob to create his own worlds. Today, he uses the power of his creativity to make art with the intention to generate awareness of important issues surrounding the environment, human connectedness, and gender identity. He is embracing web3 in his film projects and NFT photography.
Pam Voth, Head of Creator Relations for Sloika, a curated NFT photography marketplace, sat down for a lively conversation with Rob Woodcox – one she wishes she could have had in person with him nearly a year ago in Mexico City.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pam Voth: This is Pam Voth with Sloika. And today I'm here with Rob Woodcox. He's a conceptual fine art photographer and film director known for his human structures and surreal landscapes. His work celebrates the narrative of humans in harmony with nature and all the diverse ways that can look. I first heard about your work from Ev Tchebotarev, the co-founder of Sloika, when we started working together in late 2021. And then I was fortunate enough to actually see your exhibition at the HAAB Cultural Center in Mexico last summer. Sadly, we didn't get a chance to cross paths at that time, but I'm super happy to sit down with you for a chat today. So thank you so much for joining me, Rob!
Rob Woodcox: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me. It's pretty special to be here chatting with you. You know, it's like, Ev has been a friend of mine for quite a long time. I was actually quite involved with him back when he was running 500px, if you can imagine that. So our journey goes back quite a ways.
That's awesome. He kind of alluded to that as well. I'm super happy to talk with you because you are a part of the Art Scene with a capital ‘A’ in all the major cities around the world. I know that you've just been to Miami, and participated in Art Basel. I saw online that you were part of the FLOW exhibit by Art Republic at Art Basel, and also part of the Ancient Future SaveArtSpace at SCOPE. So how did it go in Miami? What was that like? How did you prepare?
RW: Oh, my goodness, well, all I can say is I had been the year before which I hear from longtime attendees, the year before was quiet. It was the first year passed the pandemic and everything. So I experienced a very minor version of Art Basel the first time. And so this year, I was like, “Oh my gosh, like, what's it gonna be like?” Everyone was saying, “Oh, my God, it's gonna be so much more chaotic.” And in many ways, it was. Because you know, Art Basel isn't just the fairs. It's all the events that happen around it. And so this year, I really worked hard beforehand to try and study the schedules and see what events were happening and get on the lists and all that stuff. So the experience was quite amazing. And being involved with Art Republic and SaveArtSpace, I would say was the best part. I think when you're able to be included in an event like that, it just elevates the experience like crazy, you know? And I think one of the most special parts was showing up to the SCOPE art fair, having my work on display, and then getting to meet people who've been a part of my art journey since the beginning.
It was pretty serendipitous. As I arrived at the SCOPE art fair, my work was on the monolith at the entrance. And there's like, 20 artists on that thing. So it takes at least an hour to rotate through all the artists. So the fact that I walked in, and it was sort of welcoming me like, “Hey, Rob here you are!” That was so cool. And I definitely freaked out. I definitely shed some tears, seeing all of that.
And then what was really cool is SCOPE actually has to approve all the artists that get selected by the different galleries participating inside. And so they had actually seen my work and requested that our booth get put at the front of the fair because they loved it so much. Selection committees are all pretty subjective. Everybody could have a different opinion, but it felt really validating to know that people responded to the work on that level.
And so from the monolith, you actually could look through the glass doors at the entrance and see the rest of my art hanging on the walls. And I was just like, ‘oh my god, like what is this?’ As I walked into my booth, there was a woman that had been waiting for me to arrive. Because my reps at the booth knew that I was coming and she said, “I bought one of your pieces 10 years ago when you were starting.” This is so refreshing and rewarding and validating to see the people that you know from interacting with them online. But then to meet them in person was so rewarding. It was very special.
PV: That's so awesome. Yeah, I can feel the excitement. I didn't get to Art Basel this year. But I went there with Ev in 2021. And, yeah, I can just imagine how that was such a special occurrence.
And I was so sad that we missed each other in Mexico City because I was at the HAAB Cultural Center at the same time your work was hanging there. When Ev mentioned your work in 2021, I looked you up and I was a fan before I even had a chance to see the prints in person.
I was wondering how you would characterize the art scene in Mexico City. Because it was the first time I'd been there since I was a kid. And I just thought there was such a cool art scene. Tell me, your impressions of it.
So actually, early on, in my artistic journey, some of my biggest inspirations have been surrealist painters. And I don't know how much you know about that movement, but Mexico City was the heart of that movement. You had artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, of course. And they attracted all the other surrealist painters like Picasso, and Leonora Carrington, who ended up moving to Mexico and who basically is considered Mexican because she spent the rest of her life there. I always loved those types of artists, and that really influenced my art. So when I went to Mexico, for the first time, in 2018, I was instantly in love. I was in love with the people with the variety of architecture with the number of museums. Mexico City has some of the most museums of any major city in the world.
I think people overlook Mexico City because of foreign propaganda or just misconceptions externally about what that city is about, and what we might see in media or movies or things like that. But it is such a rich culture.
I always thought of central Mexico as a dry desert environment. But the city has cultivated this sort of tropical experience. So you go to Mexico City, and you're walking down these giant avenues with Monstera plants growing up trees and giant ‘árboles’ – trees– just like arching over everything. And so the setting itself is so beautiful. And then on top of that, you have all of this access to galleries and museums, and all these cultural experiences. And there are people dancing in the street. And, you get to hear all different kinds of music from around the world. And so all these different art forms sort of culminate into this rich experience, where, regardless of what your own craft is, you're getting inspired by all these different art forms all the time.
And so when I experienced that in 2018, I was like, “I need to move.” And since then, it's been such a welcoming journey. You know, people in Mexico are much more open and welcoming from the beginning. In the United States, for example, it’s not that those cultures don't exist, but it's more of a standard in Mexico. You look people in the eyes, you hug people when you greet them. And so, you know, it didn't take me very long to get welcomed into the artist community, at every level, with collaborators, with organizations and museums. And so I've already had three different shows in Mexico since I moved there. I'm actually launching a new Design Week project in February for Zona Maco. And we're going to be curating an experience at a very famous architectural site called Nieto Quetzalcoatl. It's themed after the Aztec god of rain. I'm really excited to just continue diving into everything that that city has to offer.
That's awesome. I got that same sense that people were just so warm and welcoming. And the first time I saw those giant avenues with tropical trees, I thought, “Wait, why don't all the cities do this?” It’s so beautiful just to stroll in the shade on a warm afternoon, right?
Yeah, I think a lot of cities could take pointers from Mexico City. Why not have parks in all the avenues and lots and lots of squares and spaces for people to gather? We definitely need to take some notes for the rest of the world.
Yeah, exactly. So I wanted to dive back into your story and ask you when and why did photography become important in your life?
Well, ever since I was a kid, I was really interested in expressing myself through art, whether it be drawing or painting. And it was in my teenage years that I started picking up point-and-shoot cameras, and just sort of documenting all of my friends and experiences. I definitely was not at my artistic peak back in that day. But it was my learning. It was when I learned to create stories and narratives.
And I remember when I was, you know, 17, and being faced with the big question, what are you going to do with your life? All I could think of was I want to create. I didn't know why. I didn't know how. And growing up in the Midwest United States, there was no model for being an artist. Nobody around me was an artist. Nobody had faith in me being an artist. Everyone said, “You're never gonna make money.” But I just knew that was what I was meant to do. That's what my heart wanted.
And I've always been a little bit stubborn about following my heart over following expectations or rules or what people think I should do. And I'm thankful for that trait. Because at age 18, I convinced my parents to let me sort of coast into college doing just my basic courses and figuring out if there was a program for me where I can pursue art.
And I was really lucky to find that in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There was a small school called Washtenaw Community College. And they were Canon-sponsored. So they had six large studios and lots of equipment for students to use. And they were a really affordable option for me to pursue photography, which at that time, was the art form that I was the most interested in.
And so I went to school for photography. And I always laugh because a lot of my friends went to the Center for Creative Studies, which is the big art school in Detroit, nearby. And they were paying like $30,000 a year while I was paying $2,000 a year. And they had to pay to use the equipment at the school, in addition to their enrollment fees. And I was just thinking, I'm getting away for free over here. I'm getting state-of-the-art studios and all this free equipment. And at the end of the day, a lot of the learning curve, when it comes to any art form is the technique and the resources and access to those resources.
And so for me, I feel like I had the best college experience because I didn't have the pressure of art school weighing on me making me into some perfect model of what an artist should be. And I also had access to the resources. And so I had a wonderful college experience sort of experimenting with all kinds of cameras and lighting techniques.
I actually started out with a film camera. My dad gave me his 35-millimeter when I started that program. So I did a whole film program first and then switched over to digital, which also taught me how to compose and really think about every shot, working in the film and in the darkroom, and everything. So yeah, I'm really thankful for that journey.
And when I started photography, I was really inspired, like I said, by surrealist painters, and also surrealist photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Tim Walker, Eugenio Recuenco, Gregory Crewdson, all these really fascinating surrealist artists. And I remember thinking very early on, “I don't need to just take simple portraits, I can do anything with photography.” And that's when my journey of starting to create worlds and narratives began.
I remember, there's this really funny photo I took of two of my friends at this beautiful architectural spot in Ann Arbor. I put little foil tin hats on their head, and I gave them appliances and told them to use them the wrong way. So one was trying to look into a phone and one was trying to make a phone call with like the wrong appliance. I don't remember exactly. But I just remember thinking, “Oh, I'm creating this alien narrative.”
Some of my earlier concepts are quite comical because I was still working out what direction am I going to take this. I would say I started hitting my stride around the age of 23, when I went full-time into photography. And in the years leading up to that I was actually super involved with the Flickr community before Instagram was even a thing. We started meeting up every six months all around North America. And that became sort of my catalyst for making photography a full-time thing. I was surrounded by other artists and saw ways that I could make it sustainable. And I believe it was when I was 23, it must have been 2014, that I started actually traveling and teaching photography workshops. And that's how I transitioned into being a full-time photographer.
Wow, that's a great story. All the way from Ann Arbor with tinfoil hats to now you're making these human towers and human structures with dancers. I was just curious about your choice to work with dancers. I wondered if you were a dancer yourself.
RW: You know, it's very funny, because I get asked that question all the time. And I am not a professional dancer, I never have been. However, I've always loved dancing, you know, for fun. Actually, my partner is Colombian and he grew up in Cali, Colombia, which is sort of the capital of salsa and cumbia and those dance forms in the world. And so he's actually currently teaching me salsa and cumbia, and merengue and all these different Latin dances. He is a professional dancer, and he's incredible.
I think the reason I fell in love so deeply with dancers is that early on when I started making surreal conceptual images, I was just working with anyone and everyone that was available. And that was great. I mean, I like working with all people still, to this day. I have various series actually, right now, where I'm just working with, you know, people based on their expression of love or their identity. And they're not necessarily all dancers.
But I remember the first shoot where I worked with a dancer, and I would say, I want to create this emotion, and they would just immediately snap into a position that made sense with the concept. And I just remember that being such an easy and flawless process, you know, from having to instruct really heavily with people that might not be as used to working with their body or used to creating those kinds of poses. And so I fell in love instantly with dancers. And I remember when Trump was elected. I remember I was devastated. But I was also amazed at all the people coming together to fight back against the oppression that was being experienced by Trump being elected. Whether through queer communities, indigenous communities, or environmental communities, you know, so many communities were negatively impacted by that election. But at the same time, it kind of was a catalyst for getting people to work together. And so I loved that energy.
And I was a part of so many different protests and things like that. And so I took a trip to New York City in that in the Spring of that year, and I was just sitting in a room talking to my friends, like, we need to create some unifying imagery to kind of clap back to this, this political reality that we're facing. And they were like, well, we know all these dancers around New York City that are trained at different schools like Joffrey and things like that. And so they pulled all their friends together, and I think we ended up with about 12 dancers. And we created the first image of my dance series, Bodies of Light, which was this human pyramid on a rooftop in New York City. We were in Chelsea, you can see the Empire State Building behind and everything.
And I remember you know, there are these moments as an artist where you have a concept. And maybe for years, you haven't been able to get what you wanted in camera, because you're still learning the techniques, or you're still learning your own personal style. And that was one of those moments where it clicked. I got what I was imagining in my head. And I was so proud of that moment. And that really inspired me to continue moving in that direction. And so from there, I created my Tree of Life Image. Everything has sort of developed from that point.
Well, I'm so glad that ‘clapping back’ energy brought you to this place where we are right now. Because some of these structures that I see in your work, I can see how people can do that. And then I think, how is she completely defying gravity? I just love how much time I spend with each one of the images that you create because it really engages you in the environment that the dancers are in. The poses, the emotions, whether it's quite rigid or quite flowy, or quite connected, all of these different kinds of themes come out. Is there a particular message that you would like the viewer to get from your work?
Absolutely, I mean, one thing I love about art is that it impacts everybody in their own unique way. Sometimes I don't explain things. Sometimes I just release a piece of art or display it in a show. And I love hearing people's responses to the art.
But everything I create is absolutely made with a purpose and intention. The subjects vary, but they all tend to centralize around human connectivity and our relationship with nature. And you know, growing up, I feel very lucky because I was raised in a sort of middle-class family with five kids. So we didn't have a lot of wealth to travel the world, but my parents still wanted us to be able to, you know, move and exercise and be outside the house. So they really encouraged us to be outdoorsy. Essentially, they were like “go outside and play until the sun comes down.” And so I was really encouraged as a kid to explore the local forests and to bike and to camp, and all of those kinds of things that were more humble and in tune with nature.
And so I had an appreciation. I came into adulthood with an understanding and appreciation of nature. And so when I created my own opportunities to travel and to see the world, I started realizing that our climate and our environment were in danger. It really motivated me to move in a way that I could contribute to protecting what we still have left on this planet.
And so when I started creating the Bodies of Light series with the dancers, I started realizing, I have an opportunity to celebrate nature and to celebrate the intersection of humanity and nature, and to show what we have on this planet and what's worth celebrating and preserving. And so most of those images are in response to that, that exact subject and sort of celebrating, look at this beauty. Look at what we can do when we come together.
And actually, there are so many initiatives in the world right now, fighting against climate change and fighting against, you know, ignorance in government and in positions of power. And those initiatives are going to change the world. You know, there are so many people at the frontlines of the Amazon fighting back against fires and farming and destruction of the rainforest. And there are so many people finding solutions for coral reefs that are dying and finding ways to replant and replenish them. I love that there's this kid that built a trash-collecting machine in the Pacific Ocean for the big plastic islands. And there, they actually just officially hit the mark of cleaning 1% of that giant island which sounds small, but in one year to clear up an entire percentage of probably the biggest trash pile in the entire world. It's a big deal.
So I see a lot of hope for our future. And it's something that I want to celebrate. And I want to make people aware of this because I really find there's a lot of media surrounding this topic. And we need to know the truth, we need to know the hard facts, and those can be very depressing. And so I find when that's the only focus, it shuts a lot of people off. They don't have the capacity to manage their own reality and what they need out of life to survive in this society and to also take on what feels like the world when we talk about climate change.
And so I really want to encourage people through my art. I really want to show them there are people fighting this fight. There are people who've been doing this for generations, that have solutions, and have the most effective ways to clap back to all of this. And that's sort of the energy that I want to exude through my artwork, both in my still work which people might know and be familiar with. And with the film work that I'm transitioning into, and starting to focus more energy on.
I love the evidence that you were talking about how these changes are happening. And you know, the encouragement and awareness that you're helping generate through your art. I think it's so important in the whole conversation. So, thank you for doing that. It's really important work! And I definitely want to talk about your film work. But first, I wanted to ask you if anything has changed for you with the advent of web3 and NFTs of your photography. It's just come about very recently, that artists can make such a difference in their own lives through NFTs, and I just wonder how it affected yours.
Absolutely. I love the concept of the NFT space because I think that art has the ability to live and create bridges of language of culture. And so for it to also be able to bridge into communities that, you know, mainly take place online, I think that's beautiful. I think there are so many people in this world who are able to connect beyond their own hometown or beyond the limited mindsets they might have been raised into like the Internet has done so much for so many of us.
I know coming up as a young person with the internet, that changed my life. That gave me the ability to like reach out to people that thought like me or express like me, and I have a whole career now because of the internet. And so for this web3 space to sort of explode and take off where now where we as artists are more in control of where art is going and who's consuming it, and in what way they're consuming it, I really appreciate that.
Because, you know, artists get really overlooked in this world. In the physical art world, oftentimes, as an artist, you're dealing with a bunch of business people who just want to make money off of you. And sometimes they connect to the vision and that's beautiful. But sometimes they're just in it for the money or for the business perspective, or whatever. And so a lot of times you end up selling a lot of your worth and the value of your art to people that had nothing to do with the process of your art.
What I love about the web3 world is it sort of gives back that ownership to the artists more fully. And it gives you a vision into where that art is going to go. If a piece continues to sell, you're always attached to that. You're always included in that conversation, in a sense. And so I really appreciate that. And also just the community and the web3 space. I was really pleasantly surprised when I started getting involved to find that so many people in web3 are in it for great reasons. They're in it because they want to see the world improve. They're in it because they want to contribute to fighting the climate crisis. They're in it because they genuinely love art and they want to be a part of the process with the artists. And so I feel, it has really changed my perspective on, like how to approach upcoming projects.
On all the films that I'm working on we're incorporating web3, which is really fun and exciting because it just also gives you another outlet for creativity. It's been a challenging journey to find animators at a time when they're all being sought out with this big web3 boom. But I am developing a few animation projects as well. And so as a visual artist, seeing this new opportunity to break barriers that I've never experienced before and try new art forms, it's really been fun. I really love this space.
PV: It is really fun, isn't it? I'm really glad to have found it myself, too. So is there anything on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Absolutely. Well, film itself is on the horizon. Coming from over a decade of being a photographer, the idea of being a film director is a whole new world. I'm literally making a transition into an entirely new art form because making a longer format, living breathing, moving cinema is a whole much larger undertaking than creating a single still photograph. I will always maintain a deep love for both art forms. There's something in photography that film will never be able to accomplish and vice versa. They're both such unique and necessary forms of creation and documentation. So I will always participate in both. But what I'm learning is that with film, I have to devote so much of myself to that journey because you're now thinking about that grand photographic moment but multiplied by 1000.
So the intentionality of creating the narrative, creating the different moving compositions, it's a lot more involved. But I love it. I'm so I'm having so much fun turning my inner world into moving pictures. And so my first short film is actually coming out in the next few months, I'm really excited because we have a traditional release strategy with festivals and, and media and things like that. But we're also going to have an entirely separate strategy for the web3 world. So we're gonna have a really exciting opportunity for investors and buyers that are interested in art to participate in the continuation of the film through an interactive community. So that's pretty much all I can say at the moment. But there will be a lot of exciting opportunities for people to get involved with the film.
This particular film explores a narrative of falling in and out of love and back in love with the self. And so the sort of final moment of the film, you get to see the main individual sort of like returning to themself. And that's sort of the celebration of the film, which is a reflection of my own path and my own journey.
And we're also in development for the next film, which I'm also really excited about. And the hope for the next film is that it's going to be a global environmental campaign. So all the stuff that we just talked about is going to be channeled into this next film, both incorporating a documentary style and my own artistic sort of choreographic style with dancers. So it's going to serve as both an art film and a documentary film. That's all I can say for now. But I'm really, really, really excited for everybody to experience what we have to share with this new moving art form.
PV: How can people keep up to date with this project?
RW: Absolutely. Well, I'm the platform, I would say I'm the most engaged with Instagram because it's all visual. And luckily for us, they've put so much energy into pushing videos on Instagram. And so as I move into video, I'm totally okay with that. And so I'll be, of course, releasing all updates on all my different social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
And we're actually involved with a really wonderful platform and sort of investment group called Art on the Internet. And they're a really big player in the NFT, and web3 space. And they're involved in so many cool and exciting technology releases and art endeavors. And so they've been, they've been our number one sponsor for the first film.
And we're going to be doing a lot of things with them again that I can't speak about yet. But I think if you're interested in sort of following the journey, check any of my social media. We'll also be releasing a lot of interviews and behind-the-scenes on various media platforms. So just keep your eyes open, and it'll come to you.
PV: All right, you heard it here. Now we know where to find you. So, do you have any ideas for what Sloika can look for in the future with any of your work? I think the collectors on Sloika would absolutely fall in love with your work.
RW: Oh, my God to give them that opportunity? Yeah, well, Ev is a dear friend, and I'm so proud of him and everything that he's built along with you and the rest of the team. I know, it's always a team effort.
And what I love about Sloika is its focus on the art form of photography. I love the focus on collections and really celebrating narrative work and bodies of work. Creating bodies of work is what raised me up as an artist and helped me to succeed because it allowed people to stay connected more in-depth and follow the narrative.
So I'm really excited. I have a few archival series that I'm looking to release there in the near future. And also, I think moving forward as I create some of my more personal bodies of work. Those are bodies of work that I'd like to release. Sloika I think has the best platform for that style of presentation and release of work. So I'm really, really excited to have a conversation with you guys and get that moving.
PV: Well, I would second that!
Thank you so much, Rob, for sitting down and talking with me today. I am just so happy we finally made it happen. Like I said, I was so sad that I missed you in Mexico City. And my team will attest to that. I thought maybe if I ran downstairs really fast I can catch him?
RW: Next time, you got to just grab me. I'm super social. And I would have loved that. I always do. I remember I did run into Ev and another member of the team. And I was able to say hi, so I guess we just missed each other. Next time!
PV: Well, I know where to find you now. And again, thank you so much for the time and the great stories. I really am so excited to talk with someone like you who's following their passion and is focused on really important messages. It's just it's a beautiful thing. And your art is just amazing. I wish you huge success in your film directing career. I can totally understand all of the energy that takes and that it brings you, so it's really exciting. We're gonna be watching closely. Thank you so much for joining me.
RW: Super happy to be here today and sending you all the best as well.
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