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When a Professor Trades the Academy for an Art Career of His Own

For Thomas Woodruff, retirement from teaching offered the very thing he’d been trying to instill in his students: artistic freedom.

When New York City went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, Thomas Woodruff started sketching dinosaurs. Not as a child might doodle a T. rex, but as an artist drawing a self-portrait. At 62, he was 20 years into his career as the head of the illustration and cartooning departments at the School of Visual Arts, and he’d begun to worry that he and his students came from different eras. One class failed to recognize Picasso’s “Guernica” but could name Forky, the Picasso-inspired spork character inToy Story 4. “It doesn’t count anymore if you’re a gay man of a certain age who went through the AIDS crisis,” he says from the same drafting table in his studio, a repurposed barn in Germantown, N.Y., where for more than a year he taught via Zoom. “It’s something that’s just kind of like, ‘Well, you’re a dinosaur.’”

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