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Meet Bill Woo; an artist and philanthropist who owns Gallery Woo in St. Petersburg, Florida. Toonari Post met him at his gallery to speak about his charity work, his art, and his connection with the St. Pete area.
There was a time when Woo lived a different life. His father, William Correira, a well known scrimshaw artist, died at the age of 50 from pancreatic cancer. Woo tells us that this experience opened his eyes. “I wasn’t really satisfied. I had the big job, the big car, the big condo” – but he wanted more from life.
At one point, he talked about quitting his job as a graphic designer almost every week so when he finally made the jump, his bosses didn’t believe him. “That’s six years ago now,” Woo says.
As an artist, Woo is known for painting fish and sea life. “I started off painting nudes,” he tells us, “but one day a lady came up to me and asked if I could paint a snook and a grouper as a present for her husband.” He did so and handed them to the gallery for the lady, but the gallery managed to sell the two paintings before the lady was able to pick them up. Woo painted a new set, but those were sold to walk-ins as well. Finally, he manage to get the snook and grouper to the right people but Woo realized that there was a real market in fish paintings “I sold six paintings in one week! So I thought to myself ‘maybe fish is what I should be doing.’”
He started out by looking for exposure. With a blank canvas, he sat down in front of the Vinoy in St. Petersburg and started to paint. The happening was a success. He quickly realized that people appreciate the opportunity to see a painting come to life and his decision to work in front of restaurants led him to charm both the patrons and the management alike, creating long-lasting relationships with restaurants and furnishing their venues with his mesmerizing fish motifs.
Woo had initially rented a small location for his work space but after three months, he was doing so well that he started to look for a new place. He saw the space in downtown St. Petersburg but after speaking to the landlady, was told that they “didn’t rent out to artists.” As he was walking away, the landlady’s secretary recognized him and commented ‘do you know who that is? That’s Woo!’
It turned out that they had both admired his work from the restaurant and it immediately made her change her mind and let him set up his Gallery in the building, confirming to Woo that exposure is the key to success.
‘You get as good as you give’
Woo explains that he’ll be the first to help fellow artists. “Life’s too short,” according to Woo.
When he started out himself, asking established artist for help “everyone would be really tight lipped,” he explains, “like I was gonna steal their ideas or something.” However, once in a while he would meet a good samaritan willing to help. One advice he got was to read a book called Art Marketing 101. In his opinion “it was essentially simple stuff, but doing it, now that’s the hard part.”
Woo often does benefit events in the local area. Recently he attended an auction event where he painted live while attendees could bid on the painting as it was being created. “That painting brought in $750 for the cause, which is pretty decent for just four hours of work.”
The involvement in charity work serves a double purpose; it is a chance for an artist to give back to the community – but it is also a chance for Woo as an artist to put himself in front of a particular crowd, and a different crowd from time to time. “I will always meet people who are new to my art,” he explains.
On a more personal level, doing good also makes Woo feel that he can make a difference to other people. “My mother always tells me ‘you know, you can’t help the whole world,’” he laughs. Still, he actively supports multiple causes, including the Children’s Dream Fund and Creative Clay.
He told us the story about a young girl whom he had let paint for him at a benefit event in the past. “She was so excited, she couldn’t believe I was gonna let her paint on the canvas.” The following year, he met her parents again but in the meantime, the girl had passed away due to her illness. “They came up to me and [were] like ‘letting her help you with that painting was the highlight of her year.’” The experience had meant the world to the girl and her parents. “Little things like that, they mean so much to people.”
A life-changing experience
Woo told us about the experience that changed his life. On Thanksgiving evening he started to feel strange. He remembered a heightened sense of smell right before passing out. He was rushed to the hospital where he lay in a coma for 50 days.
When he awoke, he was given the diagnose: Glioblastoma – brain cancer. The prolonged coma meant that he had to learn how to walk again and the cancer meant chemotherapy. “Cancer isn’t just physically draining. It’s mentally draining as well. You sit there with a couple of other people, getting your chemo and you get to know people’s stories and then the next month, they may not be there and we all know what happened to them. When you start to outlive people, you start to think ‘why me?’”
After a successful surgery, Woo slowly regained his health. “This type of experience changes you, I mean, I’m a whole different person today than I was before the cancer. It taught me life truly is short.”
The surgery that Woo had cut through the left side of his brain “The doctors told me I could lose my sense of smell, of taste, my artistic qualities.” Since the surgery however, Woo has kept up the painting and admits that his painting has since gotten better. “It comes down to practice, keep working, keep practicing.”
If you meet Woo, you notice that his arms are covered in tattoos; particularly a beautiful koi fish on his right arm. “When I was at the hospital, my nephew brought me a little rubber koi fish,” he tells us. “The koi represents longevity.” To this day, he still carries the little rubber fish in his wallet.
Speaking of fish, the majority of Woo’s paintings focus on fish heads. Woo explains “When I was a kid, we would go fishing and when we caught one, I used to look them right in the eye. I would always wonder, what is he thinking? Each fish has a character.”
Woo fascination with fish is borne from growing up in Florida, and many of his commissions are for popular Floridian fish. When it comes to painting them, Woo has his favorites. “The harlequin tusk fish I like to paint, because it has such interesting coloring. And tunas have their own expressions.”
Woo’s father, who was an artist, died before he could witness Woo follow in his footsteps. “No, my father never got a chance to see any of my work,” he tells us.
Despite being his own boss, Woo very much treats his work as a “real” job – getting in at 8AM and leaving at 6PM. He tells us that he enjoys putting all his time and effort into something that is his. “And you know, I work hard because it’s what you put into it that will end up being your reward. It’s mine and it’s something I love to do.”
Woo’s next big project is to market his work in Hawaii.