A long time learning

Apologies for the lengthy silence. There are several reasons – I’ve used my blog mostly to describe my Artist-in-Residence voyages and explorations, and I’ve been at home for the last 8 months. And the most recent residency, at Zion National Park, was such an apex of personal and artistic experience that everything else has felt un-newsworthy.

However I have recently had a long exploration come to a fruition worth sharing. In 2011 I heard Simon Starling talk at the Banff Centre. A high-wattage light bulb went off for me then that I have been thinking about ever since: how can the creative process be as much of the meaning as the resulting artifact? That is, how you make something can be as important as the appearance of what you made. While still at that Banff residency, and with some debt to Etsuko Ichikawa, this took me down the path of drawing with wood burning tools and soldering irons.

Suze's Piece Group Show

Another version of What the Fire Wrote – now titled Book of Fire

I also began to wonder about paper as one of many wood products, and how to might it lend meaning to representations of burned trees. I’ve been painting and drawing burned trees for more than five years; I have gradually come to realize that it’s the charred, fire-scarred, semi-regular, chunked leftovers that excite my visual neurons the most, and I have increasingly focused in on those patterns in my paintings. Fire-scarring is my landscape.

A portion of a Suze Woolf painting, Partial Scar

A portion of Partial Scar

A portion of a Suze Woolf painting  The Topography of Fire

A portion of The Topography of Fire

A portion of Northgate Casualty

A portion of Northgate Casualty

Somewhere along this fascination I realized I wanted to make dimensional casts of these patterns. In 2012 I took a class on plaster molds from the late Susan Balshor. Each iteration I learned something more about what worked and what didn’t (I learned you can’t, for example, pour india ink into the paper pulp and except to pull it out of a plaster mold intact. I didn’t dare use strengthening additives like matte medium or methyl cellulose, as recommended by the experts at  Carriage House Paper, for fear it would stick to the detailed plaster molds. I gained patience waiting until the pulp is really dry and beginning to shrink away from the sides. Sometimes my pulp was too thick and wouldn’t dry, or too thin, and too fragile…)

Then I got some help with silicon molds (thanks Mark Walker), and the learning curve began all over again. It was great being able to peel back the mold from deep undercuts and out of small cracks. The original didn’t crumble to pieces while being extricated from the mold. But my paper pulp never dried. I made it thinner and added lots of methyl cellulose, less afraid of the pulp adhering to the slippery silicon molds. I found the “Drying” cycle on my home oven, intended for making fruit leathers. I learned that 140 degrees scorches the paper but 10-12 hours at 120 degrees with the convection fan going and the door open worked quite well.

Here at last, then, two years’ worth of learning, artifacts of a strange beauty and a process related to their meaning.

Assemblage by Suze Woolf

Obverse: Paper casts, pyrography on shaped paper and watercolor on paper, 32 x 22

Assemblage by Suze Woolf

Inverse: Watercolor on shaped paper, paper casts, 32 x 11


My own recursion: trees wrapping trees

This weekend with the help of four other people, three dogs and a cat, I took the large burned tree paintings, After the First Death and Burned at the Base out to the snowy woods. Ruth and I had spent part of the previous day tromping around the vicinity, scouting for the right group of trees. It took about 4 hours to stage the paintings, to put protective fabric and plastic up to keep small branches from poking and sap from sticking to the backs of the paintings, to pin them in place, to photograph them and take them down. The temperatures with in the 20’s (Fahrenheit), with light snow. Good thing Steve is over 6 feet (2 meters) tall; we needed his height so that the base of the tree showed at the bottom.

I’m thrilled with how compelling they look in their (un?) natural habitat. There is something visually intriguing about the mix of rendered and photographed surfaces; how well they blend in and yet how much they stand out. This is as exciting as when I started burning drawings of burned forests on rice paper.

I learned a great deal in the process, were I to repeat this installation. It’s astonishing how much engineering and problem-solving there is in fine art!

Weatherproofing the art

Today I’m sealing up the backsides of Burned at the Base and After the First Death. The fronts have been spray-varnished at Plasteel with anti-moisture, anti-UV chemistry. The only place I have that is big enough for these babies is my dining room floor.

Then the next time we have a spell of good weather I’m going to take them out and wrap them around real trees to photograph them. I have no idea how I will safely transport, handle, and hang them out in nature; I’ll have to coax someone into helping me — a small painting? hot chocolate for life?

Sealing the Back


Last day

Yesterday I did more work on Crown of Broken Branches. It was pleasurable after a month of tight work to do confident, loose, watercolor on traditional watercolor paper — “respecting the paint” as Tom Hoffman once said I did. I jury-rigged a way to weight the curling edges to a jumble of taped-together boards, since I did not have a board big enough. I decided I did not need to paint to the edges as I usually do, and I would leave the paper as it came off the roll — uneven, an imperfect rectangle — to reinforce the aesthetic liberation I was feeling.

Crown of Broken Branches, Dec15

50 x ~36. This one will get finished at home.

But after an exit interview, the afternoon opening of our group show (see December 15), an artist talk by sound artist Gary James Joynes, and dinner with the family and remaining artists, I was completely derailed.  I’m well and done, my mind is no longer focusing on the art, it’s turned its jangling neurons to logistics, travel, and the looming holidays I’ve managed to ignore up until now.

One of my colleagues here says she’s always grumpy when she gets home from residencies. I can hypothesize some of the causes: the breakup of your newest community of committed souls, travel itself, coming home to changes  (“honey I found a better place for the toaster”), packing/unpacking, wondering what you accomplished and if it will make any difference, calls for artists to write applications for, shows that need inventories and frames, website maintenance, housework and cooking and bills, all intruding on your opportunity to really focus as you have in residence…

Luckily I have Jonelle Johnson’s weekly watermedia group as my home community to which I return.

Group show

Today I worked on a final pyrography drawing and added it to the group show in the small gallery downstairs. Following Ila’s advice I left the flap of excess paper in the piece — now it’s an artist book ; – )

I’ve only really got one more work day left. At first I reached for a regular full watercolor sheet, but then I stopped. “What am I thinking?! This is my last opportunity to work big!” So I muscled a large piece of Arches watercolor paper off the roll. It fights back ; – ) but I devised a complicated set of weights and clips to hold it in place. The drawing of a burned, downed log receding into near space looks like a crucifixion. Maybe this is not such a bad metaphor.

Building a burned tree from paper

As time draws short, it seems ever-more important to keep experimenting while I have all this space. (Must be 5 times the size of my workspace at home!) I tweaked After the First Death a little, but spent most of the day on a paper construction I’m calling The Fire This Time. Alas, I don’t count it as a visual success, but I derive sufficient procedural and conceptual interest to try it again.  I want to contrast our idealized images of trees with the reality of burned ones; and of course, paper is made from trees — at least high-quality heavy paper like watercolor paper is.

I’m reminded of my friend Karen Rudd’s cedar stumps painstakingly constructed of corrugated cardboard.  I see a lot of “recursive” artwork around here — objects where the creation process recapitulates the meaning of the work in some way.

Burned at the Base

I decided to change the name of the second large paintings from the Stanley Glacier Trail. I called it Fire-Scarred Base before, but the alliteration of Burned at the Base seems simpler and clearer. I made a lot of progress over the last two days, and coming back to it fresh tomorrow should tell me if it’s done.

Friday was the last of the music residents’ concerts of the year and as always it was outstanding. I heard a visiting Celtic rock-and-roll band the next night and while it was enjoyable, it was a shock to realize what complex and sublime music I had been become habituated to hearing.

Most of the thematic residents left Friday or Saturday and others are beginning to depart in dribs and drabs. It’s becoming very quiet, but also more intimate.

Burned at the Base, Dec11

Perhaps too jewel-like for the subject matter, but I love those textures. 76 x 51 inches.

Open Studio afternoon

Today all the artists visited each others’ studios and  then were open to the public the rest of the afternoon. It was partial completion to watch people react to the work I’ve done (“the work is not complete without a viewer”).

I finished the burn-drawing from Vermillion Pass and presented it by creating side strips with grommets and burned stick supports. I’d like to try this one again without any shading, only lines. But many people seem to like it, including my colleague Carin Covin who said “don’t you dare cut this one up”.

And I began work on the next extra-large fire-scar close-up. I really like the idea of these two 76 x 51-inch paintings on half-round supports facing each other across an archway — or photographed outside, wrapped around an actual tree trunk.

Fire Drawing - Stanley Glacier Trail Dec 7

Fire Drawing from Stanley Glacier Trail (Dec 7)

After the First Death (Nov21)

After the First Death 76 x 51 in.

Fire Scarred Base Dec 7

Fire-scarred Base (Dec 7)