Kathy Park Woolbert: A tribute to an extraordinary woman

Courtesy Henry Woolbert Photo Kathy Park took of herself on Panamint Overlook in California, circa 1981. First appeared in "Fifty years of sculpture: A retrospective from 1969 to 2021" exhibit at ASU.

On Monday, April 8, at 5:30 p.m., Kathy Park Woolbert passed away at home in her bed with her best friend, partner, collaborator, soulmate and husband, Henry, at her side.  It was the day of the solar eclipse, which somehow seems so fitting.

“Kathy Park has gone over to the other side to join the herd,” says Henry. “Horses were such a part of her life — this is how Kathy saw her passing.”

What follows is reprinted in tribute. It first ran in the Oct. 17, 2020, edition of the Valley Courier. 

ALAMOSA — Kathy Park is, in every sense of the word, an artist. Her paintings reveal a world that is both real and surrealistic, familiar yet mysterious. Her exquisite sculptures emerge from a block of wood or a slab of stone as if they’ve been there all along, waiting for a master’s touch to bring them to life.

Art is not something Kathy does; it is who she is and is as intrinsic to her being as the steps she takes, the stories she tells or the incredibly huge tomatoes she grows along the wall of her house.

Park is also a uniquely profound writer – of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, occasionally raucous limericks, plays and musings with three published titles to her name.

Yet, there’s still more, for she’s also an adjunct professor at Adams State University in Extended Studies and the Prison College Program where she teaches, via mail, college level writing courses to people incarcerated in prisons across the country.

She’s an accomplished horse trainer as evidenced in her symbiotic relationship with her mare and longtime companion, Esperanza.

Park is also half of a partnership with Henry Woolbert, her husband of 40 years and, clearly, best friend, soulmate, collaborator, artist and, since her diagnosis, caregiver.

She is also a second-degree black belt Aikido instructor with forty years of experience on a journey reflected in the very meaning of the word.

Ai means harmony.  Ki means universal life force.  Do means the way or the path.

Those are important, possibly difficult concepts for many to grasp, she says.  But they’re especially profound for Park at this time in her life.

“In July of 2019, I was diagnosed with glioblastoma.” Her quiet voice somehow robs the words of their cruelty. Yet, a woman so embracing of life, talented at expressing its beauty and celebratory of the people, experiences and lessons that life has to offer saying those words is an affront to everything we want so very much to believe.

But none of that changes the fact that it’s true.  Equally true? Park receiving that kind of diagnosis is going to…look a little different.

Getting the diagnosis was rough, largely due to the aggressive way the doctor (whom she calls “Dr. Doom”) broke the news. “He interrupted me every time I spoke. He pulled his chair right up in my face and said, ‘Glioblastoma always comes back, always.’

“I walked out of the office and said to Henry…what just happened?”  She shakes her head. “I was being silenced, as a woman and a patient.  It took me a week, but I decided right then – at three o’clock in the morning – that’s not how this is going to go. I decided to do it differently. 

“I also decided that doctor needed to take some time off and go fishing. I want to encourage anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to pay attention to those messages and to stop it, right then. If your doctor doesn’t have a sense of humor, find one who does.”  

In that story, Park foreshadows how she chose to continue to live her life, which brings us back to Aikido.

When speaking of Aikido, Park’s language is absent of words like “strike” or “hit." The underlying philosophy is “defend yourself without hurting the attacker." Someone who is attacking has offended the balance of the universe, so you simply “take” their balance.  Don’t try to stop the hit. Direct it away from yourself without hurting the other person, keeping them off balance and unable to be more powerful than you.

This way of the “peaceful warrior,” has governed Park’s philosophy more than half of the time she’s been alive.  Like art, like writing, like teaching and riding horses and growing tomatoes, Aikido is an intrinsic part of who she is and how she deals with brain cancer.

“Sensei is a word that means teacher. It’s honorific. It communicates respect for the tradition and for the person who’s going up through the ranks. But sensei can also mean something else.   It also refers to those situations that teach us something we need to learn, something that changes who we are.”

She’s briefly quiet.

“That diagnosis was an instant reality check,” she says.  “My life was going in one very clear direction and, suddenly, I was told no, your life is going this other way instead. I could have been very angry.  I could have felt cheated. I could have said, why me? But that’s not an option. There’s no way to move forward when you tie yourself up in resistance. It’s like driving over La Veta Pass with your emergency brake on. How far are you going to get?  Not very far,” she says, laughing. “No, I have to blend with it. I have to change.”

Park envisions wrapping a black belt – a symbol of her proficiency and strength in Aikido – around the glioblastoma.  “I tell it that, if I die, it will die, too. So it must not kill me.”  She then smiles and speaks of the letter she wrote…to the glioblastoma. 

“I said I promoted myself in rank. I haven’t complained, and I’ve taken everything you’ve taught me.”  And for this reason only, she calls it sensei glioblastoma – not in gratitude to the disease but in gratitude for what the disease has taught her about what is important and what is not, what meaning can be found in life, what joy and what lessons there are to be learned.  The importance in practicing “not knowing”, waiting for an “attack” to happen while also being in a state of relaxation.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know life wants to keep moving and to flow through us.  I want to be both the vessel and the conduit, so I’m going to try to blend with this and hope I continue to live into my dying.  If you practice acceptance, in whatever form, you’ll be able to deal with what comes.  Christians do that. And I’m so glad for whatever authority I have, and it works for me to…go with it and make the best of it that I can.”

Meanwhile, Kathy Park continues with her art that is saving her life, giving her a reason to live.  Her art that is both what she does and who she is.  And she’s taken off the emergency brake.  “It’s not the end of the road.” And then she smiles, and the smile is followed by a laugh.

A celebration of life will be held in honor of Kathy Park Woolbert at a time to be announced by her husband, Henry Woolbert, at some point in the future.