Why they take so *#$@^* long!

(“They” being my series of artist books made from bark-beetle-damaged wood and bark. Warning, this post is almost as long as the process!)

The Idea

I had the idea maybe as long as 4 or 5 months ago. I saw these paragraphs in the introduction to a textbook about bark beetles:

“Bark beetles play key roles in the structure of natural plant communities and large-scale biomes. They contribute to nutrient cycling, canopy thinning, gap dynamics, biodiversity, soil structure, hydrology, disturbance regimes, and successional pathways. Several species in particular can genuinely be designated as ‘landscape engineers,’ in that they exert stand-replacing cross-scale interactions.

In addition to their ecological roles, some bark beetles compete with humans for valued plants and plant products and so are significant forest and agricultural pests. These species cause substantial socioeconomic losses, and at times necessitate management responses. Bark beetles and humans are both in the business of converting trees into homes, so our overlapping economies make some conflict of interest inevitable.”

Kenneth F. Fagga, Jean-Claude Gregoire and B. Staffan Lindgren, Natural History and Ecology of Bark Beetles, Introduction to Chapter 1 Bark Beetles, Elsevier, 2015.

I started thinking about how I could invoke this competition for resources metaphorically.  I’d collected some particularly handsome beetle galleries on medium-size branches in the Wenatchee National Forest. And I’d been reading one of Diana Six’s papers on the obligate mutualism of certain fungi to bark beetles – the beetles carry the fungi from one tree to another and the fungi convert some of the elements the beetles need to digest tree wood. Certain species leave a calling card—a greyish tone from the sapwood toward the heartwood, called “blue stain.”

Procuring Materials

I asked a Montana friend who used to manage a timber mill if he could get me any of this wood as dimensional lumber. That took a while, as not every supplier bothers to carry it, since it is not popular in appearance and may have the holes of other kinds of beetles. I didn’t need very much, so it wasn’t hard to ship it to me in Seattle.

I received the dimensional lumber about 10 weeks ago.

Laying Out the Cut

I decided to interpolate the branch shape to the 12-inch length of 1×4 over 16 spreads, or 34 pages, counting the inside front and inside back. I did the drawing in Inkscape and had it laser-cut with 36 binding holes, 9 groups of 4, and included those 1 mm holes in the drawing. Over time, I’ve developed a method for making these interpolations successfully.

My interpolated cutting diagram laid out (remember each page has two sides)

I had some leftover 1/8” Baltic birch plywood from a previous project, so I laid out the cuts to fit it. It probably took me 2 days to make the drawing and its imposition onto the wood sheet. Then it turned out my usual local supplier, Fremont Laser & Design, had changed ownership and moved and was just getting started up again. So that took a little time, too. It was cut about 4 weeks ago.

Prepping the Materials

Oh yeah, there’s also soaking both the branch and the plank in Minwax wood hardener. I do that for several reasons: I once heard a story from a curator about an artist’s “organic” work on display from which emerged an army of live insects. So I want to be sure anything still in there is quite dead. Plus it helps stabilize the wood and prevent any further checking or cracking. And there’s the time I sit in the driveway cleaning the frass out of the galleries with an old toothbrush… So a couple of hours there.

Page Graphics

I faced the problem of what I wanted to show on those pages. They looked good by themselves, but I felt I needed to underline the meaning more strongly. I decided to morph an image of the branch into an image of the dimensional lumber, with each gradually taking over from the other over half the book’s pages. That is, in the first half of the book the bark beetle galleries take up more and more of the page—the beetles are winning; then the lumber becomes an increasing proportion of the page—the humans are competing.

This turned out to be a lot harder than I would have guessed. It was no big deal to photograph the dimensional lumber. But it took me several tries to figure out how to create an image of the branch (which is only ~2 inches wide) that I could use across all the different page widths. I knew I needed to “unwrap” the texture of the branch onto a 4”-wide rectangle. The method that finally worked was to stand the branch up on a lazy susan where 180-degrees were marked off in 22.5-degree segments. I set a camera on a tripod in front of the lazy susan, took photos at each 22.5-degree rotation, then used Microsoft Research’s Image Composite Editor to stitch them together.  There went another few days….

180-degrees of the branch in 8 photos, stitched together
Dimensional lumber, blue stain on the upper right

I tried several different apps for morphing one image into the other but wasn’t satisfied with the image quality of any of the video morphing ones. I finally used the animation plug in for GIMP. But I had to figure out the proportions in pixels to have the correct transitions from one texture to the other, as well as how to fade one image into the other, since I didn’t want a harsh line between them. 

My thumbnail drawings and pixel calculations

And of course, with 20 layers, the file was huge and gave me all sorts of computer fits and starts. I finally got it to work, painfully exporting the image graphic for each page, front and back–66 in all.

Then I remembered the spreads needed to face each other, i.e. the image on the left-facing page would be flipped horizontally with respect to the right-facing page. However I could do this in page layout software…  There goes a week.

I sent a PDF file to my partner’s 11 x17 office laser printer, with two of my book pages on an 11 x 17 sheet, but the prints weren’t as vivid and sharp as I had hoped. It turned out my own printer with high quality paper was better. So I re-laid it out on legal size paper, which is the largest I can print in my studio. Then I realized if I was going to use a laser print transfer method, I’d have to flip all the pages back the other way, since the print needed to go toner-side down onto the wood pages.

I also decided I wanted to include the text quoted at the beginning, so that meant going back into each image file of all the pages to add the text. And that the text would have to be reversed. There goes another week…

Laser print transfers for each page

OK, then the process becomes even more laborious. I coated both sides of each wooden page with acrylic gloss medium—two coats, a dry thicker one and a half-water, thinner coat to even out any rugosities. That’s 80 coats in all. Then I do the same thing with all the prints, 80 more. Then I use the same gloss medium to glue them together. I only made one sequence mistake, but it’s not very obvious, so I can live with it.

And speaking of tedious, after the prints-glued-to-wooden-pages dry for 24 hours under weights, the next step is to dissolve the paper off the back of the print. In my experience this usually takes at least three passes. In the first pass I run a sponge over the back of the paper and let it sit for a moment. Then with rough-fingered gardening gloves on, I begin rubbing the paper off. (I have learned to wear gloves, because I have previously rubbed the fingerprints off my fingers, making it difficult to log into my phone!). Once it dries, it’s easy to see how much paper is left to dissolve, and the second pass gets most of it off.  But there is always still another bit of white fog after they dry, meaning there is still more paper to dissolve. And you have to be careful – if you rub too hard, you will tear or pull off the thin film of toner embedded in acrylic medium.

Trimming any excess film off is also nerve-wracking, because you don’t want to nick the wood and have light spots interfere with the handsome laser-cut edges. This proved to be quite difficult to do on my interior interpolated holes.

Then I coated each page with wax medium and let it dry. This acts as a sealing varnish that, unlike most other varnishes, won’t stick to itself since the book is usually stored closed.  All in all, the coating, transfer, and varnishing phase takes another week.

The best way to see how this came out is in this video: Bark Beetle Book Vol. XXXIV page animation.

Binding

Finally, it’s time to bind the pages. I had included those 1 mm holes in the laser-cutting. Why did I include so many?!? Why did I make them so small!?!? In the binding method I used, modified Coptic, each station or hole requires its own needle. I didn’t have 36 needles that would fit into the holes with an eye large enough to accommodate my hand-dyed, 3-ply Kevlar thread. I had about 20 needles the right size and tried dipping the ends of the rest of the threads into glue to stiffen them, so they could act like shoelace aglets, but it was too slow and frustrating to get through the holes and wrap back around the stitches without needles. So several trips two different stores to acquire the right size needles.

At last I began binding, back to front. But not only did it take a long time to go over/in/out/wrap-around-the-stich and pull-through each of 36 stations, but when I coated each page with multiple layers of gloss medium, all the little sewing holes had become stopped up with acrylic. I had to take a nail and pound out each hole before I could sew the page.

Worse, by the time I got to the middle of the book and measured my remaining thread, I knew I hadn’t calculated the length of thread required correctly. My fall-back strategy was to begin binding front to back with new thread to meet and interlace in the middle. And of course I had to dye, dry and separate more thread. Two more weeks. And then…

Finally done!

Bark Beetle Book Vol. XXXIV: Resource Competition
Rear view
Half way through the book the beetles have taken over.
Near the end of the book, the manufactured wood is ahead.

The saddest of ironies

Twelve years ago I began painting portraits of individual burned boles because of my anxiety about the impacts of what is now a climate crisis.

I heard two days ago that one of my burned tree paintings has been removed from the path of a California fire. I hope with all my heart that my purchasers’ home is spared–yet I am so moved that they chose to rescue the work in the face of what must be thousands of concerns.

Blazed, varnished watercolor on torn paper, 52″H x 20″W (2017).
The subject was a tree near Observation Point in Zion National Park.
This painting was #36 of what is now a series of 42.

Suze’s Art News September 2020

It’s still pretty strange times.

We are all adapting as best we can. Artwork and time in wilderness give me inner sanity; helping others, whether individuals or institutions, is another strategem.

In roughly chronological order:

Where we watched the eclipse, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

Bend, Oregon’s High Desert Museum’s annual fundraising competition, Art in the West, includes this landscape. The virtual auction is live 8/1 – 10/3/2020.


Bathtub Lakes, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

I’ll be teaching an in-person, outdoor class, “Practical Plein Air,” for Gage Academy of Art 9/12-13 — masked and distanced of course. There’s still room! Here is the registration page.


Artichokes, watercolor on paper on cradled panel, coated in epoxy, 11″ x 15″

Item # 228, Silent Auction 2: in The Museum of Northwest Art’s annual fundraiser. Bidding opens on 9/11 and closes 9/13.


Bark Beetle Book, Volume XXX: Species Distribution. Douglas fir branch, laser-cut wood, laser-print transfers, viscose and silk, Kevlar thread, wood beads. 3.5″ x 32.5″ closed, 3.5″ x 19 *feet* open — the longest book I’ve ever made!

I’ll be giving a virtual talk for Puget Sound Book Artists 9/10 from 4 -5:30 pm. Anyone is welcome to register for it on their site. I’ll be discussing the inspiration and processes of many of the 30 books that sat in the silent and empty exhibit “Gathered from the field: art provoked by the climate research” from early March to mid August this year.


State of the Forest installation (fabric prints of my burned tree portraits). Image courtesy The James Museum, St Petersburg FL and David J. Wagner, curator.

Environmental Impact II, which includes State of the Forest, has moved to Fort Hays State University in Kansas, where it will be on display for the academic year 9/18/20 – 5/15/21. See also my home page and individual artwork page.


Enlichenment watercolor on paper on panel, 8″x8″  SOLD

I was one of 50 contributors to a clever fundraiser called Square Deal–50 Artists for a Fair Vote. While mine is gone, there are still 12 left here.


Bark Beetle Book Volume XXXI: Beetle Graph. Douglas fir branches, laser-cut wood, laser-print transfers, bronze rings. 86″H x 18″W x 3″D. Each branch is a bar from a bar graph of the most destructive bark beetles in Washington State from 2008-2018. 

I’m pleased to be part of the annual ICON competition at Lynn Hanson Gallery. There is a virtual First Thursday artwork on her site 9/3 at 5:30 and a virtual artist reception 9/12 at 2pm. 


Bark Beetle Book Volume XXXII: Obligate Mutualism. Branch, laser-cut wood panels, iron-oxide-dyed and industrial wool felt, linen threat, embroidery floss 8.75″ x 6.75″ x 3″. Certain bark beetles that kill trees carry with them a staining fungus which helps them digest wood. Their characteristic patterns are shown on the covers. The fungi reach into wood with microfilaments, evoked by the lines of embroidery. 

I am once again part of Mighty Tieton’s 10x10x10 competition, on display 8/8 – 10/11. The virtual exhibit is here.


In Headlight Basin, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

This painting will be part of Schack-toberfest, the Everett museum’s fundraiser 9/17 – 11/7.


Lastly, I’ll be giving a talk for Seattle Co-Arts at noon on October 27.

It has been a surprisingly rewarding summer despite everything there is to worry about. Painting outdoors on the Northwest Watercolor Society’s plein air days (which I help organize) has been a real treat. Small alpine landscapes remind me of the most joyous times of my life. This missive is already too over-long to show them here–but if you want to see some of this year’s small pleasures, let me know and I’ll send you a selection. 

Thanks for your attention to all my efforts to support our local art institutions!

Suze’s Art News June 2020

Oh my, how the world has changed! I want to acknowledge that we all are experiencing dislocation and distress – some much, much more than others – as a lame introduction to reporting my art endeavors.

I’m reminded of the scene at the end of Casablanca where Bogart says to Bacall, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three [one] little people [person, i.e., me] don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world….”

My bean count: residencies cancelled or postponed — three; individual pieces of artwork sitting in shuttered exhibit spaces out there in the world — 72; upcoming exhibits cancelled — two; and one cancelled watercolor workshop on a San Juan river trip for Great Old Broads for Wilderness. And no doubt more to come….

….but at least I can’t take it personally!


My pandemic project gave me deep focus for the first 41 days. This blog post gives greater detail.

Panels 1-6 of 7 at home lo res

As yet untitled, 6 of 7 panels of varnished watercolor on torn paper, 22 feet by widths from 42” – 49”. I have no place large enough to photograph it all together!


I’m deeply honored to receive a MadArt Artist Relief grant. I plan to use it to extend opportunities for artists less fortunate than me. While not up there yet, the 3-minute application video I created should be viewable on their vimeo page soon.


Besides the Kirkland Arts Center People’s Choice Award that prompted the big tree pandemic project in the first place, one of my artist books received an award at Northern Arizona University’s “May You Live in Interesting Times” book arts exhibit. (Little did they know how soon their title’s wish would be granted!)

TheNarrows

The Narrows, watercolor on paper, 32” x 14”

I also received a small award in the Northwest Watercolor Society’s recent virtual membership exhibit. I was supposed to be the speaker for March, but the meeting was cancelled. Instead I created a short online talk, still viewable here.


UrbanMoonset

Urban Moonset, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″, begun as a demo for my last Gage workshop

I am still planning to teach a landscape workshop for Gage Academy June 13 and 20. (Sign up soon!) Portions are almost certain to be online, but I am hoping our city and county guidelines will permit small outdoor groups to paint in parks if masked and distanced. The irony of trying to paint plein air landscapes indoors online has not escaped me!


In my neighborhood a Seattle Opera tenor has been giving small street concerts for the duration. When I listen, I can feel a collective human spirit expressed through art. I’m reminded that while occasions can be upended, indeed vita brevis, ars longa….

 

 

 

 

Plein air peut-être?

The Mona Lisa wearing a mask

Notes from an article originally written for the Northwest Watercolor Society’s June 2020 newsletter with tips that may be useful to others

Most likely you know that plein air means outdoors in French (literally “full air”). It refers to the tradition begun by the Impressionists of going outside to paint from life. It was the invention of small, ready-made, soft-metal, portable paint tubes that made it possible. Peut-être is French for “might be,” or “maybe.”

Little will bring more freshness – and challenge! – to your work quite as much as painting outdoors from life. From Thomas Moran to David Hockney, whenever I see an exhibit that pairs artists’ large studio paintings with their preparatory studies, I always love the studies. They may be smaller, less grandiose and less accurate—but they are so much more direct, personal and free.

I also find that it’s something I have to practice regularly; it’s more like a sport: you can’t expect to score a win if you don’t practice. For many years I have participated in an annual plein air competition in late fall, so I am highly motivated to “train” all summer.

And since this kind of painting is honestly one of the harder things to do, you have to be easy on yourself.

Just as last summer, a group of us are still planning to go outside to paint once a week.   Depending on the state and local orders in force at the time, it might have to be 6-feet-apart, masked and gloved. Or separate in our home gardens with a video meeting afterwards.

NWWS_PlienAir_060519_7607

Suze at Gasworks Park in 2019 (James McFarlane photo)

 

This year there is so much we can’t assume: the parking lots of some city parks are still off limits to parking. Restrooms may not be open. Restaurants, if open, may be only open for take-out. Besides the painting gear outlined below, add masks, gloves and hand-sanitizer to your kit.  We are planning to maintain a sign-in sheet should there be any need for future contact tracing (and will not be used for any other purpose).

Here are some of the tips and practices I have found helpful:

Painting gear:

  • Lightweight folding easel and several sheets of paper that fit on it. Some people bring lightweight folding chairs and paint on a board in their laps, but I like standing because my arm is freer. Some people work in small sketchbook; my preference is separate quarter-sheets.
  • Small closing palette that fits on my easel shelf, with my go-to landscape colors in it (always in the same order so I don’t have to hunt for a pigment)
  • Several favorite brushes – I can get away with only a 1-inch flat, two sizes of rounds and a rigger
  • A camera – I always take a photo between the end of my pencil sketch and starting to paint. Rarely do I ever refer back to it, but just taking the photo allows me to paint more freely knowing I have a backup if something unforeseen occurs. (Yes, there was that time they turned the sprinklers on me at Gasworks when I was only half-finished : – )
  • Water cups that fit on my easel
  • A filled water bottle with a carabiner on its handle; I can clip it and/or my backpack the easel for extra stability if it’s breezy.
  • A pencil case with pencil, pencil sharpener, white vinyl and kneaded erasers, clips to hold my paper to my easel’s board, a Swiss Army knife, pen, and a few business cards
  • A quick snack like some almonds, a piece of fruit or a granola bar. We may go for lunch afterwards if there’s a quorum and a convenient spot, but sometimes I need a boost before well before then.
  • Travel mug – that way you can’t stick your brush in your beverage.
  • Sun screen

And now:

  • Hand sanitizer, mask, gloves

Clothing:

  • Cathy Gill so rightly says, “First the artist must be comfortable.” Dress in layers you can put on or take off, depending on the weather. I always have a spare lightweight jacket and warm hat with me, as I get cold easily standing still whatever the temperature. Sometimes I’ll wear long underwear if it’s less than 60 degrees and breezy, as well as fingerless wool gloves.
  • Sun hat with a big brim that shades your eyes and covers the back of your neck. I don’t like to wear sunglasses because they distort my color perception, so that hat is really important. Picking a location where your board and paper are in the shade and not reflecting glare into your eyes helps too.
  • As it gets warmer, one of my layers is a big white long sleeved shirt, so I only have to put the sun-goo on my hands and face.

Useful practices:

  • I like to walk around a little and review possible subjects before I settle on a particular one. This is one reason it’s nice to have an easy way to carry your stuff: I use a backpack; some folks have rolling carriers.
  • If possible, orient your paper and board 90 degrees to the scene you’re painting. That way you’ll be reacting to your painting at least as much as to reality.
  • Especially early and late in the shoulder seasons, reverse the usual light-to-dark watercolor practice and paint the shadows first because they’ll be changing the fastest. You can also do a quick value sketch to fix the darks before they’re changed positions.
  • I always ask myself, “why is this going to be a painting and not a photograph,” another reminder that I need not be a slave to the reality in front of me. Or, as my colleague Spike Ress once said to me, “you can lie…”

I can’t tell you how much I hope to see you out there, because it means I’ll be able to get out there too!

Suze Woolf

Art in the Time of Coronavirus, or, “The Big Tree”

AnimationDay01-28It will not surprise you to hear I made myself a massive, hunker-down, shelter-in-place project, now nearly three-quarters completed.

In January I received the people’s choice award at a local juried show. One option for the award is an exhibit on a large wall above the checkout counter at a nearby public library. Before the lockdown went into effect, I made it over there to check out the space. One side of the wall is 24 feet wide, with about 6 feet of vertical space. There is also a smaller wall on the other side of a central doorway.

I’ve always meant to try one of my burned tree paintings on the lengthwise axis of a roll of watercolor paper — but been intimidated by the time commitment required. With my beloved wilderness off-limits, I knew I needed something demanding to do.

When completed it will be 22 feet long (not quite an entire roll  of 30 feet : -) Since I don’t have room to work on something that big in my studio, I’m doing it in sections that will hang abutted. I figure if John Grade’s immense Middle Fork sculpture was created in sections, I can do it, too.

I’ll mount them so they can be hung either vertically or horizontally, though I expect most venues will need it to be horizontal.

Panels 1-6 of 7 at home lo res

Panels 1-6: I don’t have enough floor space in the largest room I have to lay them out!

Two friends independently dubbed it “Water Lilies of the Anthropocene.” While it’s nowhere near the size of Monet’s largest water lily paintings, it’s the largest of my 12-year preoccupation with wildland fires, as their remains increase in frequency and severity in our warming climate. The library is excited about it and plans to do some programming around it. I’m excited because lots of people will see it — whenever we can visit libraries once again.

I’ve just starting panel 7 of 7, at ~18.5 feet now. Between that and varnishing and mounting, I think it will take another 3-4 weeks. The animation at the top of this post represents 28 painting days, with 7 panel prep days as well.

We have all had plans and dreams interrupted by the virus. I wish us all good health, an easing of the stresses and strictures, and a chance to show what we’ve been working on during this pandemic siege.

UPDATE May 1, 2020:

The painting portion is finally finished (there’s still varnishing, creating shaped boards to mount them on and mounting them to do).

My photos don’t quite do it justice — it is too large to lay out in any contiguous space in my studio, so each panel has been photographed separately and digitally composited. The color-matching across panels is more accurate in the painting than in these photos.

It’s fun to see it in its possible vertical orientation, too. One thing that surprised me: the panels also look surprisingly meaningful as separate side-by-side pieces.

Any suggestion for a title welcome!

Big Tree Final (4096x783)

The Big Tree,” Watercolor on torn paper, 49″ x 262″ (21’10”)

UPDATE October 1, 2020:

Panel 2 of what I finally decided to title The Magnitude of the Problem has been accepted into the Northwest Watercolor Society’s 80th Annual International Exhibit (online this pandemic year).  It will be viewable beginning the evening of October 27.

Suze’s Art Doings, March 2020

I am truly excited about Gathered from the field: Art provoked by climate research opening March 9 at the University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Art Gallery. Together with Anna McKee’s WAIS reliquary installation and other works, 30 of my bark beetle books will be on display there until April 18. There is a reception and “Art + Sci” salon March 26 at 4:30 pm, including my collaborators Dr. Diana Six of the University of Montana and poet Melinda Mueller. Afterwards, join us at one of the “Night Out” tours of UPS’ Slater Museum of Natural History.

Vol 30 half open detail 2 (1024x665)

Bark Beetle Book Volume XXX: Species Distribution.
Artist Book 3.5 in. diameter x 32.5 in. long closed, 3.5″ diameter x 19 feet open. Douglas fir branch, laser-cut wood, laser-print transfers, viscose and silk, Kevlar thread, wood beads. [The almost-tree-long book features galleries of the beetle species that chew on Douglas firs.]

It’s my pleasure to report that Goodell Creek Cedar, the 41st of my portraits of individual burned trees, won the People’s Choice award at Kirkland Art Center’s recent Threshold exhibit. The award is in the form of a future exhibit; and I am plotting something humongous!

Goodell Creek Cedar (1024x868)Goodell Creek Cedar
Varnished watercolor on torn paper, 52 in. high x 44 in. wide.
[The Goodell Creek fire shut down transmission from Ross Dam in 2015. I am fascinated by how cedars seem to both rot and burn from the inside out.]

CoCA’s annual juried members’ exhibit, 20/20 Visions, opens March 5, during the Pioneer Square Art Walk. As in other years, I’m honored to be selected for the smaller gallery show. Come vote for your favorite!

Dendritic Rhyolite with Case (757x1024)

Dendritic Rhyolite
Artist Book and Case, 4.5 in. x 7.25 in. x 2.875 in. Stone, laser-cut and laser-etched mat board, modified Coptic-binding with linen thread. [The shapes of the rock covers, as well as the iron stains on them, are interpolated from front to back through the book.]

I’m also pleased to report I will be teaching a watercolor landscape workshop, not only at Gage Academy June 13-14 in Seattle as is typical for me, but on a 5-day 4-night May river trip on the San Juan for Great Old Broads for Wilderness. The trip is full; I’m looking forward to spring time on the water in canyon country.

BlacktailCanyon1 (726x1024)

Deep Time (sold)
Watercolor on paper 30 in. x 22 in.
[The Great Unconformity, 1.2-1.6 million missing years, is at the lower left of the painting.]

That’s all for now. I hope we can stay calm and productive in times of such tremendous stress and upheaval. I know that art can be both a goad and a balm.

SuzeFontSignature

 

Winter News 2020

Happy New Year!

First up, Threshold at Kirkland Arts Center. This juried exhibit will include the largest burned tree painting I’ve done yet — a cedar tree from the starting point of the North Cascades’ 2015 Goodell Creek Fire. I’m always struck by how cedars seem to rot or burn from the inside out. Many times the center is completely gone yet the tree still lives.

The exhibit is on display January 7 – February 15. The opening reception is January 10 from 6 – 8 pm and I will be there.


Goodell Creek Cedar, Varnished watercolor on torn paper, 52″ high by 44″ wide (2019)


Next, Gage Academy in Seattle is having its 30th anniversary exhibit at the Washington State Convention Center Phyllis Lamphere Gallery. I teach the occasional weekend workshop at Gage, so I’m happy to have three of my burned tree paintings up from January 9 – April 13, 2020. Update: The reception date has been changed from the evening of January 31st to February 9, 11-1pm; I still plan to be there.


Stehekin Sentinel, Jolie laide and De-Limbed; Varnished watercolor on torn paper,
all 52″ high by various widths, (2014, 2017 and 2014)


Several of my large landscapes are hanging at the Lynnwood Convention Center’s Northwest Landscapes exhibit, now through June 30. There will be a reception February 19, 6-8 pm, but I will be away and unable to attend.


Young and Old Alike, Watercolor on paper, 22″H x 30″W (2008)


Three of my artist books will be at Northern Arizona University’s Art Museum for a book arts exhibit, “May You Live in Interesting Times” February 4 – April 18, 2020.


 
Top: The Last Iceberg, laser cut mat board, rub-on type, acrylic paint, varnish, linen thread; acrylic mount. 17”H x 10”W x 2.5”D (2016). [Rotated]
Above left: Rockbound Book: Elephant Canyon Volume.
Book: Sandstone, laser-cut mat board, elastic thread binding;
Case: wood, laser-cut mat board, paint, polish. Case: 7″L x 6″W x 3.5″H (2015).
Above right: Rockbound Book: Snowline.
Book: sliced snowflake obsidian, mat board, non-woven viscose;
Case: wood, paper, cord, casein paint, shoe polish, hardware. Case  8″ x 5″ x 4″ (2015).


In March-April, Anna McKee and I will be showing our work in an Art+Sci exhibit entitled Gathered from the Field; art provoked by climate research at the University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Art Gallery in Tacoma, WA. It will include her installation, WAIS Reliquary: 68,000 Years and I will have ~30 of my bark beetle books. There will be a reception March 26 6-8 pm. Not only will Anna and I attend, but our various scientific, literary, audio and other collaborators will be there as well. Update: The reception time has been changed to 4:30pm-6pm at the Kittredge Gallery.


Bark Beetle Book Vol. XXVII: Survivorship. Log (likely white bark pine) with mountain pine beetle galleries, laser-cut bamboo, offset-printed text with inked-in mountain pine beetle galleries, brass binding post. 9.5″ diameter, 6″ H.

Based on a paper by Six et al.: ~7% of white bark pines in a research tract survived mass attack by mountain pine beetles. DNA analyses of the survivors showed “quieter” encoding for certain VOCs that the beetles perceive. The interior pages of the book have been printed with “ASCII art” of the mRNA encoding for monoterpene synthase. The proportion of dark, low-contrast (“quiet”) to light, high-contrast (“noisy”) pages in the book is 7/100.*


On March 24 I’ll be the speaker/demonstrator at the Northwest Watercolor Society’s March meeting at Daniel Smith Art Materials, 4150 1st Ave S., Seattle, beginning at 6:45 pm. Here’s what I said I would talk about (from page two of their newsletter):

“Painting landscapes in watercolor, both in the studio and from life, has led her in many directions Some are fairly predictable, like artist residencies in national parks and coordinating last summer’s NWWS plein air outings.

Other impacts have been more unexpected – learning to use tools such as pyrography (drawing by burning), paper making and casting (sculptural paper pulp), technology (software interpolation, laser cutting, digital printing on fabric), bookbinding and woodworking.

Another surprise has been deep creative collaborations with scientists, writers and poets. By spending time outdoors painting and living in remote parks and art colonies, she becomes aware of the issues affecting the landscapes she finds so inspiring.”


In other news, my State of the Forest installation continues to travel with Environmental Impact Sequel, opening in Asheville, North Carolina’s Arboretum in February-April. Update: owing to an unforeseen conflict on their part, I will NOT be visiting to give a short talk in late April.

I hope that the commencing decade is productive and joyful to all of us — I hope to catch up during one or more of these events!


*My colleague Iskra Johnson informs me this brief description is difficult to understand. Here is a more expansive attempt:

The beetles sense and take advantage of some of the tree’s own defenses. Some of those defenses are the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that it makes – semi-toxic gases, really – that the beetles re-synthesize as aggregating pheromones to call all their friends. Remember turpentine comes from tree resin. So the messenger RNA for the gene for monoterpene synthase, one of those VOCs, turns on its manufacture by the tree, but ironically, strong monoterpene synthase is something the beetles sense and use. 93% of the white bark pines made enough of it that they got attacked. 7% didn’t, they were less “visible” to the beetles.

C-A-T-G (cytosine, adenine, thymine and guanine) are literally the base pair components of DNA and RNA. I made the “ASCII” art from the c-a-t-g sequence for monoterpene synthase. You might remember in the early days of computer graphics people made illustrations out of text fields:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ASCII_art

I used an “ASCII art converter” to make the base pair text field have beetle trails running through it. I printed the pages in both positive contrast-y, color-on-white, “noisy” versions in the same proportions (the 93%)   as the trees that were killed, and negative/low contrast, white-on-black “quiet” pages —  the 7% that survived.

 

 

Willowtail for the Third Time

I recently completed a third visit to Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve near Mancos, Colorado. (See also Colorado-Utah-Colorado and Willowtail Springs Residency.) It was a very productive time for me: I was able to complete three of my individual portraits of burned trees in relatively few but long and intense days, compared to what it takes me at home.

The cedar on the right is the largest burned tree I’ve done yet; at its base it’s nearly as wide as it’s tall, and presents a raft of new storage and presentation problems to solve : – ).

I did a few hikes in the Lizard Head Wilderness with its first few inches of snow, and managed to start a few small landscapes from those hikes as well. I got together with my collaborator Lorena Willams, who wrote the stories that appear in the “State of the Forest” installation now on tour.

While there, I wrote this short essay on the value of their residency program:

What is the value of an artist residency to an artist?

It is the opportunity to think and work surrounded by peace and beauty — with very little distraction.[1] Like any traveler, being in a new or less familiar place is refreshing and liberating; seeing new sights can literally change a point of view. For an artist, this can result in fixed ideas or long-term directions being altered or upended or in others a renewed commitment to a body of work.

For me, three visits to Willowtail have been primarily the latter. I have two bodies of work relevant to its southwest Colorado environment – an eleven-year series of large paintings of individual burned trees and a three-year series of artist books about bark beetles, using the wood and bark of their target trees as medium. Since these are preoccupations for much of the region, I found not only a personal welcome but professional interest in the work.

What is the impact of the residency on the artist and more widely?

Something I have experienced in every residency is some surprise I could not have predicted. Two years ago, Willowtail received a Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation grant to foster a collaboration. I was paired together with Durango author and wildland firefighter Lorena Williams, enriching and deepening the burned tree body of work. Her stories, together with my paintings, have resulted in several exhibitions not only in traditional art venues, like galleries and museums,[2] but also in downtown storefronts[3] and community centers.[4]

Some 30 of these paintings have been digitally printed on three layers of fabric: a transparent, a solid and a black or black-plus-text layer with Lorena’s stories on half of them. This installation, called “State of the Forest,” is currently touring regional art and science museums around the U.S. and Canada for the next 2.5 years.[5]

Why do you come back to Willowtail?

I’ve already mentioned peace and beauty. The quirky décor, living conscientiously on the land, and facilitation in the local art community are also appreciated. But more importantly, Peggy and Lee Cloy offer something unusual in the artist residency world: deep personal interest. In large programs an artist can feel a bit  like a transfer student in an overcrowded high school. Here the sense of belief and support of the specific individual’s endeavor is appreciative, consistent and tangible.

[1] By my estimate, I am ~200-250% more productive than in my own studio.

[2] Plasteel Gallery, Seattle; Arnica Gallery, Kamloops BC; Lake Country Gallery, Vernon BC; US Botanical Museum, Washington DC; Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner WA; San Juan Islands Museum of Art, Friday Harbor, WA; Kirkland Arts Center, Kirkland WA; Green River College, WA; Seattle City Hall, WA and others.

[3] Shunpike Storefront grant, amazon HQ Republican Street windows, Seattle; summer 2018. See https://storefrontsseattle.com/ near the end of the page.

[4] “Conversations through the Smoke” toured small towns in Idaho as part of a University of Idaho/US Forest Service community fire resiliency campaign. https://www.nrfirescience.org/event/conversations-through-smoke-traveling-art-exhibition

[5] The itinerary is here: https://www.davidjwagnerllc.com/Environmental_Impact-Sequel.html

 

Eating my Vegetables

It began in one of the workshops I’ve been teaching at Gage Academy in Seattle. It’s a big jump to go from learning about the paints to doing a landscape, even from a photo, so I’m always looking for ways to bridge that gap. One day I brought in a few items out of my fridge. I asked each person to pick one, place it on a white sheet of paper and point a small desk lamp at it. Then I gave a demo:

Class kale (674x1024)

Class kale, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 7.5″

There’s something humble and unassuming about some leaves of kale.

I’m fond of saying that often people draw the Platonic “class” of an object instead of the “instance” that is there in front of them.

Or, as fellow vegetable-loving painter/instructor Lisa Goren says, “I always use chard for my teaching. I use it because, unlike flowers, [students] don’t have as fixed an idea of what it looks like in their heads. So I think they look more carefully and are more focused on the task rather than the outcome.”

Chard (1024x759)

Swiss chard, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

Our correspondence about this shared pedagogy made me think hard about why I am finding painting vegetables so liberating.

There are relatively few examples of “Great Vegetable Works from Art History”—whereas try to paint sunflowers and a whole famous field’s worth is glaring at you!

Red Leaf (753x1034)

Red leaf lettuce, watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11

It’s hard to get to over-invested in painting a vegetable—compared to, say, a beautiful landscape you’re sentimental about. Since you don’t have so many hopes and expectations attached to it, you paint more freely and the results are fresh. (Mind you, they still require careful observation!)

Long radishes (1024x767)

Long radishes, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

Or maybe it’s a jolie laide or underdog thing? Even in the foodie world they’re usually not the star of the meal…

Artichokes (1024x757)

Artichokes, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

Perhaps it’s also my own semi-conscious interest in getting people to look at what isn’t conventionally considered “art worthy.”

Plus I get to eat them afterwards… Or at least most of them:

Lungwort Lichen (1024x751)

Pulmonaria lobarium, watercolor on paper, 11″ x15″. Lungwort lichen is a vegetable to the deer and moose that browse on it!

Update: this page on my website has more of the series.

[Note: a number of these small paintings were in a solo exhibit at the Food Art Collection opening July 14, 2019. Rather than traditional framing and glazing–which just didn’t feel right when I hope they end up in people’s kitchens–they are mounted on panels and coated with epoxy–so the spatters from frying up those potatoes can be wiped off!]