Dyke Wood

Dyke Wood’s colorful, expressionist works caught the eye of Francois Claytor, a volunteer who curates for the Harrison Museum of African American Culture. Wood’s first exhibition is now on display at the museum.

Dyke Wood had a lifelong knack for making art, but never the time or inclination.

“Art came so easy for me,” he said. “People always told me how talented I was, but I didn’t look at it as a talent. I took no formal education in it. I took a few classes in junior high school and high school and that was it.”

Wood, 62, retired in 2017 after working for Norfolk Southern as a freight train conductor for 38 years; and in June, he made his artistic debut with a solo show of 30 paintings at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture in downtown Roanoke. “The Art of Dyke Wood,” the first show he’s ever had, will stay on display through mid-September.

“Everything that’s down at the Harrison Museum, I did in the last year and a half,” he said.

“When I saw Dyke’s work, I was very impressed with his use of color, with his lack of being concerned about an avant garde approach to the canvas and to his work, and how he’s basically willing to express himself as a colorist,” said Francois Claytor, who curated the show for the museum. Claytor ran an art gallery in Washington, D.C., before moving to Roanoke in the early 2010s. He frequently volunteers as a curator and publicist for the Harrison Museum.

Claytor described Wood’s talent as a God-given gift. “It’s just amazing.” You wouldn’t know, looking at Wood’s art, that he hasn’t been at this for decades, Claytor said.

A lifelong Roanoke resident, Wood dabbled in art but never tried to pursue it as a career or side hustle. “I did little things over the years when I worked for the railroad because I was out of town a lot,” he said. “I did little things that people would ask me to do, like my brother would ask, ‘Could you draw a pair of praying hands for me.’ Sure, I can do it.”

When he retired, making art wasn’t his priority. “I didn’t do any painting, very little sketching, until after I retired,” he said. He loves fishing and in the spring and summer he could use that to while away the hours, but winter was a different beast. “I said, you know, I’m going to have to find something to do in the cold weather when I’m locked inside.”

Encouragement from family at the start of 2018 got him to engage fully with his art. “My younger sister asked me to do a picture for her living room. And little did I know — she had a canvas shipped here that was 4-foot-by-6-foot. I said ‘Wow, I’ve never worked on anything this big before.’ I did something for her, and it got me interested again.

“I said this is going to be great. This is something I could do just to pass the time,” he said. “The ideas just started to come.”

It was Wood’s mother, Sarah Showalter, 83, who alerted Claytor to her son’s art. “He came by and I pulled all of it out and lined it around the walls,” Wood said. “He had talked about an art show, but of course I was very skeptical because that’s not anything that I’m familiar with.”

Some of Wood’s paintings are abstract, some depict scenes, people or animals from his imagination. All feature intense colors and design that pops.

“I think a lot of people have fallen in love with the piece he did on some of the aspects of downtown Roanoke,” Claytor said, referring to a painting that combines a number of well-known Roanoke landmarks. In a particularly creative twist, the nose of the Norfolk & Western J-Class 611 steam engine transforms into downtown’s beloved Dr Pepper sign.

“It’s been a learning process since I started. I use acrylic paint, because I work so fast. Once I start a project, I’m very impatient. I want it done yesterday.” He’s learned to temper that impulse, so that he doesn’t finish a painting, look it over and wish he’d done something differently.

“Having retired, he felt that there was an opportunity to find himself in another way and express himself in another way,” Claytor said. “This vacuum had been given to him where he could basically do what he wanted to do because he wasn’t under any pressure.”

“Some of the simplest looking pieces took me the most time,” Wood said.

Mike Allen writes the Arts & Extras column for The Roanoke Times. The beat he covers includes visual art, classical music, opera, theater, dance, literature, museums and other arts and cultural nonprofits, and things even more eclectic.

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