James Ortiz and the company of The Woodsman

Ortiz’s Oz

I have often been asked in a post-show setting to quickly answer where I came up with my interpretation of Oz that our audiences get to live in The Woodsman. The short answer often disappoints, but it all stems from this one notion that I took from the writings of L. Frank Baum — that the Land of Oz…is real.

MGM’s The Wizard of Oz

Perhaps I should back up and set the scene. The 1939 MGM movie was a film that was always playing in my house. The 6-year-old James watched the infamous “I’m melting!” scene on repeat. I was mesmerized by the film’s trickery and stagecraft far ahead of its time — How did those monkeys fly? How did Glinda turn into a bubble? I was, however, keenly aware that I was seeing something fabricated and that in itself was part of the thrill — that someone had created an entirely new world within our own. My mother, being an English teacher, saw my fascination with the movie as a literary opportunity and began reading L. Frank Baum’s book to me. One chapter a night. As we read, it was as if everything I knew about that story was turned on its head. In Baum’s novel, Dorothy doesn’t bump her head, and her journey to Oz is not a traumatic dream fueled by her own subconscious fears and wishes.

The Land of Oz, actually, is a real place. That tornado REALLY does take her to some REAL place far away, with REAL magic, and filled with REAL, old world, frontiersman-like people. With plenty of humor and heart and puns, but grounded and filled with little, very realistic details. After a long morning walking down the yellow brick road, Dorothy gets tired and needs to stop to rest. So she sits and eats what she packed in her basket and sparks up a conversation with the scarecrow. A small detail, but a big one. They’re real. This was too much for my six-year-old self to handle.

As a child, every time that I would go to the library, I’d sit under the “B” (for Baum, of course) stacks and search for any and all illustrated editions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie hadn’t provided THAT Oz for me, so I wanted to see the place that I’d fallen for in the books. I’d toss aside the interpretations that looked cartoonish, those that pandered to children, the ones that were derivative of the film, or any that depicted Dorothy’s shoes as being red — mind you, in the book, those epic slippers are actually silver! But a rare few artists seemed to capture the authenticity of Oz that Baum was after and that I so desperately craved. The woods. I can journey through them like the back of my hand.

The paintings of the Hildebrandt brothers and their use of sunlight peeking in between trees in the forest. I was IN those woods with them.

Hildebrandt brothers’ art

Charles Santore’s interpretation was grounded, fantastical and funny. His Dorothy was perfect. Steadfast, young, vibrant and determined to get home.

Charles Santore’s Tin Man and Poppy Fields

John R. Neill, the original illustrator for the majority of Baum’s 14 Oz novels was extraordinary.

John R. Neill art

His Oz skies were enormous, endless and poetic. And whoever painted the cover the del-rey edition (the one I was first read to) was amazing. Those are a real trees, real grass. The Scarecrow’s face is simply painted on the surface of a burlap sack. But how does he talk? Magic, of course. In these artists I found the Oz that Baum promised me, and that is what I work to create in my own.

So, L. Frank Baum and his old world’s authenticity inspired me to create The Woodsman. I wanted to be an artist like Hildebrandt, Santore, Neill, and recreate the Land the Oz that are in those books. A beautiful, awe-inspiring place, an introspective world, a meditative vacation. It’s private. And perfect. Explosive and simple, vibrant, full of heart, and above all, real. I’d still love to actually go. Maybe some day I will.

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