Adams State Exceptional New Alumna courts personal growth

(09-30-2013)

"I need to do what I'm going to do now," declared Kathy Park Woolbert, Adams State University Class of 2007, explaining why she and Henry, her husband of 30 years, sold their home with studios and greenhouse in Jaroso, Colo., and relocated to Dolores, Colo. There they are collaborating with Kathy's cousin, Kat Wilder, to develop a center offering clinics in natural horsemanship, as well as workshops in art, writing, and sustainable land use.

Cachuma Ranch perches atop a ridge with 360 degree views of the Four Corners area. In the evening, Mesa Verde is silhouetted to the south, as rainstorms move across Cortez toward Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west.

Chachuma inspired Woolbert to write the following:

Rain today. Hours of glorious big fat splatters of rain. Puddles. Puddles flowing into bigger puddles and rivulets flowing down the road. Wet horses. Wet horses rolling in the wet grass, standing and shaking and haloed by steam. Rapid temperature drops and cool wind and rainbows and a roiled, sultry sky. Rain bands marching down the valley, drenching the parched slopes of Mesa Verde. Listen close and you can hear the grasses drinking, the junipers and gamble oaks opening to the wet, the miraculous wet that falls from the sky, soaks into the ground and makes life breathe and grow.

"I really feel like this is the holy land," Woolbert said of Cachuma, which means "good omen" in the southern California Chumish Indian language. This is the place and time she senses will meld the themes that have shaped her life: aikido, equines, artwork, and writing. Woolbert is Adams State's 2013 Exceptional New Alumna, in recognition of her achievements in those realms and her bold willingness to continually reinvent herself. She will accept the award at the Homecoming Alumni Banquet, Friday, Oct. 11, at 5:30 p.m. in the Adams State Student Union Building. Dinner tickets are $25 per person and may be reserved by calling 719-5897-7609.

Kathy Park-Woolbert's 34" wooden sculpture, Reunion.

When she enrolled at Adams State in 2003 at the age of 53, Woolbert was the quintessential non-traditional college student, with market forces stimulating her pursuit of a new career. "9/11 changed the art world," she said, "Our sales virtually disappeared."

With the goal of becoming a chiropractor, Woolbert began at Adams State as a biology major. But a disappointing tour of the chiropractic school changed that plan. "This gave me an identity crisis - I really wanted to stay in school, but for what?" She soon found her place in the English Department's new creative writing program, with a minor in theatre.

"I had never thought of myself as a writer," she said, although she had written about her experiences working in a women's prison. "I just loved theatre. It combines art, music, language, psychology, history." She had roles in Adams State productions of Deadman Walking and A Christmas Carol. She and Henry conducted workshops in movement for puppeteers, and created the puppets used in Miracle on 34th St. She also worked on the Sandhill Review, ASU's student publication of art and literature, and designed its first logo.

Her undergraduate work birthed Woolbert's memoir, Seeing into Stone: A Sculptor's Journey, which she fully developed during her subsequent completion of an MFA in creative writing at Lesley University. "Aaron Abeyta and Carol Guerrero-Murphy are both great. They really helped midwife what I wanted to do. I took their suggestions to heart," Woolbert said. The resulting book chronicles her 15-year apprenticeship with sculptor Gordon Newell in the Mojave Desert ghost town of Darwin, California.

In 2010, Woolbert started teaching Communication Arts I and II at Adams State as an adjunct instructor. She has since developed courses in "Writing the Ten-Minute Play" and workshops focused on creative writing: "Writing and Being", "Writing and the Body," "Writing and Place." Her recent move means she no longer teaches on campus, but Woolbert is teaching "Women and Memoir" and "Advanced Composition" through ASU Extended Studies, with "Women and Drama" underway.

"I like being part of an academic community - people who are reading, writing, and thinking," she said. Woolbert's appreciation of her Adams State education is expressed through the Green/Park Woolbert Creative Arts Scholarship she and Henry created in 2008. It awards $500 a year to a student in their junior or senior year as a major in English-creative writing, theatre, music, or art.

A different perspective

Woolbert doesn't mind telling you she "majored in drugs" and activism when she first attended college in the early '70s. "I was proud to be a dropout." She was also proud to be a self-taught artist. Pottery was her first medium, and she came to excel as a sculptor. Her work also includes watercolors and fibers.

Also beginning in the '70s, Woolbert immersed herself in therapeutic body work and the martial art of aikido, in which she holds a second degree black belt. She said these interests stem from the fact that she "grew up with handicapped people" and has been challenged by her own vision issues. Woolbert's father had contracted polio in World War II, and her younger sister was born with spina bifida, forcing her to use leg braces and endure multiple surgeries. When she first started school, Woolbert developed symptoms of strabismus and amblyopia, conditions in which the eyes are misaligned, also called lazy eye.

"This actually gave me an advantage in having this external, immediately apparent flaw. I want you to be able to see past what I look like to see who I am," she said. "This gives me a different perspective. It frees me of the need to be normal, which is confining. I've seen 'beautiful' women who are still self loathing. You've got to learn to be comfortable in the body you're in."

These experiences also sensitized her to others who are disabled. "It's shaped my interest in the body, which has become a lifelong study. I've become more interested in non-verbal and non-visual communication."

Woolbert applies the principles of aikido, which strives for peaceful conflict resolution, to both teaching and horsemanship. She explained aikido is fundamentally different from other martial arts, with circular movements and extension of energy. There are no strikes, attacks, or blocks.

"You defend yourself by moving and redirecting the attacker's balance, changing the game. It entails a paradigm shift of 'entering' into a threat. It relies on timing and courage. You can be soft, with no force, which is sort of counter intuitive, but a useful metaphor for life." She credits aikido with making her a good teacher. "With multiple attackers, you can't focus on only one - just like with students." Similarly: "When you're around horses, you need to be centered and grounded. You need to be present. Horses find their center by moving their feet in response to a threat."

A few years ago, Woolbert received the gift of a Morab mare, Esperanza, who shortly gave birth to a filly, Cinnamon. This reenlivened the happiness she found as a child being in nature at summer horse camp. "That saved me. My sister and I just loved horses." She and Henry have recently become inspired by Linda Kohanov's books, The Tao of Equus and The Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation. Equine wisdom, according to Kohanov, stems from circular, intuitive power with, not over others.

"I aspire to this. It's so clean and peaceful."

By Julie Waechter