A Thrilling Installation: Twelve Burned Tree Portraits Suspended in the Air

This fall I had the opportunity to participate in the Museum of Northwest Art’s annual Surge event in La Conner, Washington State. It’s a brief exhibit intended to inform and provoke, especially residents of the low-lying Skagit River delta area. They’ve expanded their purview to include less proximal causes of coastal flooding to the broader impacts of climate change, such as melting glaciers and forest fires.

I turned in a number of proposals, some of which I will likely pursue in the future, but the one the curators most wanted to see was an installation of multiple burned tree paintings.

I thought this would be easy since all but one of the pieces already existed. (I promised to try to complete a burned tree from the Skagit watershed in time for the exhibit. The painting below came from a tree I saw near Newhalem. Last year’s Goodell Creek fire touched down right next to this small town on the west side of the North Cascades.)

Suze Woolf watercolor painting of burned tree

Goodell Fire Instance, varnished watercolor on torn paper, 52″H x 16″W

Easy, hah! Some of the works were in frames. Some were already mounted on shaped black foam core, but the backs had been used for wall hanging and had bumpers, hanging wires, and tags that needed to be removed. I chose to re-cover the backs of these with black paper. And of course the ones that were in frames needed to be taken out and new shaped foam core backings jigsaw-cut for them. And I needed to come up with a way to suspend them from the ceiling that would last throughout the exhibit.

I made a number of tests of different coatings, papers, hanging hardware and lay outs before settling on my final method. I had been reading the David McCulloch biography of the Wright Brothers, and while I cannot claim that level of invention, I was amused by how similar our processes are: theorize, plan, observe, model, build, crash, tweak again and repeat, repeat, repeat…

Photo of mockup for Suze Woolf Surge installation

Backs of 7.5″ high prints of burned tree paintings, pasted onto 1/8th inch foam core. Wires into the bases allowed me to stick them into a foam base and move them around until I was satisfied with the layout.

Every remounting and each piece of foam core required two coats of adhesive. I had to give up varnishing the foam core because it too often warped it. I tried a variety of hanging hardware. Once I began the process I realized there was no way I could complete this in time on my own.

Thanks to friends, neighbors, fellow artists and Kelly’s Lyles’ artist list, they were finished in time. It was stressful having other people working in my small space. But I met some wonderful folks – thanks especially to Arisa Brown and Rosie Peterson who spent more time than anyone besides me. Working with other artists gives you confidence in your vision!

I could calculate the footprint from my model — which was trebly useful when we arrived to find we’d been assigned a triangular space instead of a rectangular one. But I could work out the new arrangement on the model before we started measuring and hanging.

Photo of Suze Woolf installation model

Front of installation mockup, reworked for triangular footprint

After that, leaning the paintings (still in their protective surrounds) up against office chairs allowed us to fine tune the spacing before committing to ceiling hooks.

Photo of beginning of Suze Woolf Surge installation

The twelve trees still wrapped in their protective foam core surrounds, which allows them to be transported and rearranged without damaging fragile edges.

That the trees came from all over the American West and one of them local makes them even more thought-provoking. One of the effects I was after was indeed realized: when you walk through a burned forest it seems as if the trunks closest to you are stationary, but those seen through the gaps between them seem to move as you do.

The result was stunning and something I hope to do again.

Photo of Suze Woolf 2016 Surge installation

Museum of Northwest Art installation of twelve, varnished, watercolor-on-torn-paper paintings of charred trees, installed September 2016, each 52″ high by various widths

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One comment on “A Thrilling Installation: Twelve Burned Tree Portraits Suspended in the Air

  1. justpaint says:

    Beautiful, sophisticated work! I especially like your descriptions of process: how you mounted the tree images, how you settle into an art residency. Thanks for keeping up your blog!

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