Interview with Katie Bonadies
Photo description: Bret Woodard in real life.
Bret is an artist working in photography, polymer clay, collage, rocks, sequins, mixed media, and found objects. He has been at RWS since August 2022. Bret uses art as a way to tell stories, sometimes from his own life but mostly from the people he observes in public. The stories he tells, as a professor told him in art school, are “funny first, sad second” and there’s always a hidden element that makes the viewer stop and think, wait a second. Due to the nature of his sharp commentary, Bret is mindful that his role as artist is to be unobtrusive and not exploit his subjects. The scenes showcase life that he views and would never want for himself. He takes on big life moments and uses a childlike sense of animation to show the subject’s suffering. This is why he becomes most of the subjects in his photographs, dressing as the characters he wants to portray and working from a bank of his own photographs to replace elements with content from another scene that fits in a surreal kind of way–things you would never actually see in reality. His only rule for his photography is that everything he uses needs to be from images he’s shot, so he always has his camera to take pictures of landscapes, clouds, objects, and animals. He refers to this image bank as a canvas to pull from.
Taking walks, people watching and listening to silly overheard conversations inspire Bret, “I love awkward little human moments. People are so honest around you when you’re a stranger; it’s such a master class on human nature. It’s entertaining when it’s someone else’s problem. ” He’s talking about the innocuous life moments that have a sense of absurdity–not moments when people are in deep distress–like a meltdown in public over chewing gum. “There are beautiful moments you oversee. Being around life is inspiring.”
A word with your contractor. 2019. Photograph. 24"x30".
Bret recalls a couple of moments from childhood where he was reprimanded for not following the school assignment when he felt like he had made something inspired by the assigned material that demonstrated a different perspective and deeper relationship to the message. For example, one class assignment was to take a concept and say it in your own words, so Bret made up a whole language and gave a speech. He remembers the look of disappointment on his teacher’s face. He is grateful he had a dad who taught him to write what he thinks and not let authority figures tell him what to do, and that it’s okay to be weird. (It’s better than being boring.) He says he inherited his knack for creating and inspiration to create from his mom, “She’s always been able to make whatever comes into her head and is good at it. She wouldn’t call herself an artist, but she has a natural ability, and the way she does it is inspiring because she’s so humble and gives stuff away.” Bret credits his mom for his impulse to explore different mediums as well.
Ideas will manifest in whatever medium they need to as opposed to what he thinks they should be. That’s why Bret started making sculptures; photography wasn’t sufficient for the content. He creates sculptural stories out of polymer clay because it gives him more control of the scene and the archetypes he wishes to portray. This drive to tell stories and hide messages comes from Bret’s childhood. He grew up with ‘a zillion’ cousins and a grandfather on his mom’s side who had jars of things he would find. He calls it a ‘hide-and-go-seek mentality’ that has carried into adulthood, Lovers. 2018. Clay and wood. 1'x8"x10".
“I love hiding things in work, even if no one ever notices because my story and the story someone sees don’t need to be the same story,” and the story can evolve over time. Another project Bret has been executing over nearly seven years is what he calls ‘Bret Coin’. It’s a series of one-hundred coins made from silver, copper, or bronze that he hides in public places all over the country. Each coin is stamped with his wax seal: a pigeon carrying garlic with crystals underneath and his initials. Twenty-one of the coins have already been placed. Bret photographs each coin in context and leaves it without a note. Once all have been hidden, Bret says that if you make a donation to a nonprofit organization that provides resources to houseless people, people struggling with addiction, or some other force for good, he will send you a clue to where to find the coin closest to you. One silver coin is hidden in a special place in Boston, “It’s fun to think something you create gets found and you’re not going to know.” Bret says it’s a good way to reduce his ego.
A Night Out (detail). 2021. Photograph. 15"x21"
This moment made me happy (detail). 2017. Photograph. 16"x20".
Old Murdoch (detail). 2017. Photograph on canvas. 40"x50".
Now & 20 minutes ago. 2018. Photograph. 16"x20".
Bret has a large pile of abandoned projects and most of the time his ideas come from the act of creating, which is a compulsion for him. He believes it’s important to make ‘dumb’ things, things made just for fun. He’s in the process of remaking Good Will Hunting in which he plays every character. If there’s more than one character in a scene, he talks to a wig on a stick, “I’m taking over ten years to make it so that I noticeably age from scene to scene.” He’s currently five years in and has made 37 minutes of the movie. He says, for him it’s a fun acting challenge. He’s currently working on a Colombo portrait made out of sequins. He’s never made anything like it before and it’s tedious and rewarding work that he says is meditative. He plans to give it away when he’s done.
Film: a clip from Bret's remake of Good Will Hunting.