Arts and Humanities People and Community

For the love of lizards: Through an artist’s eye

Biologist and M.F.A. candidate Alyssa Wood explores iguanas as symbols for gender and sexual oppression in her newest exhibit at the University’s Wynwood gallery.
Alyssa Woods

Alyssa Wood grew up on a farm and was always fascinated with "bugs and crawlies, things most people get grossed out over." Photos: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

Alyssa Wood grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. In her childhood free of television, enmeshed in endless art projects encouraged by her father, and surrounded by ducks, cows, goats, and all kinds of critters that she grew to love, Wood thrived amidst the immense, wondrous natural world. 

Wood is set to graduate from the University of Miami this spring with an M.F.A. in photography. On the wings of a scholarship, she moved to Miami in 2016 to study biology and earned her B.S. degree at the College of Arts and Sciences. The inspiration to merge her two loves—for the natural world and for art—sparked when she took an undergraduate elective photography course. 

“I grew up with my dad encouraging us to do all sorts of creative crafts—collage, paper-mache, collecting and painting bugs, building bird houses, so many things. We entered so many times in the county fair that when my dad passed, he got an award for the most entries ever by a single family,” Wood said. 

“We didn’t have art classes through middle and high school,” Wood added. “I took my first real art class in college and realized, ‘Wow, I’m actually good at this.’” 

She began to focus on iguanas and lizards in her artwork.

Alyssa Wood 

“I’ve always been into the outdoors and especially liked small things, bugs and crawlies, things most people get grossed out over,” Wood said. 

Growing up in the South also had other, more indelible impacts on Wood. 

“Gender, sexuality, and death—my father struggled with cancer and died when I was 13—have played a really big role in my life,” Wood explained. “I grew up in Tennessee, in the heart of the Bible Belt, so being a woman in that environment was very impactful for me.” 

So, she started using her art to explore those themes. 

“Art is a way to express feelings that I don’t feel I could say otherwise. When you try to tell people something, especially if it’s something that might contradict the way they’ve been told to view the world, they can like take offense,” Wood said. “Yet art can be like a Trojan horse to convey ideas to people without being too intrusive.” 

In her work, Wood explores the body through aspects of gender, sexuality, and death. Again, she turned to lizards for expression and manipulated them into provocative gestures. 

“Anyone who knows me thinks of me as a happy person, and then they see my artwork and ask: ‘This came from you?’ My art is a way of expressing anger for a lot of the things I’ve witnessed or experienced,” she explained. 

Her “Scales” exhibition features a collection of multidisciplinary works including animation and large-scale photographic prints. 

“The main idea behind ‘Scales’ is that I want people to look at the work and think about femininity and the constructs that are deeply embedded in our culture,” Wood said. “I want to expose illusions that we might have so that people might question the limitations that are imposed on individuals such as personal freedom of expression.” 

“Scales” is on view through March 29 at the University of Miami Gallery in the Wynwood Building, 2750 NW 3rd Avenue, Suite 4, Miami, FL 33127. Call (305) 284-3161 to confirm gallery hours.