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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Artist Books

I’ve been having fun making some images of my landscapes and burnscapes into book forms. They have always seemed like an inviting genre to me, as a visual person who’d rather play Scrabble™ or do crossword puzzles than concentrate in the studio 😉 I took a short class from Dara Solliday at Pratt Fine Arts Center called “Bookbinding for Printmakers.”

But ever the artist-craftsperson-engineer, of course I had to engage in lengthy trials to reach my vision, and I pass on some of my learning in hopes that it will serve yours:

  • Measure and cut everything with more precision than you think you will need, especially anything with a 90-degree angle. Then stack the pieces that are supposed to match next to each other and correct any egregious smidgeons, it will be well worth the trouble later on. If one piece is too small, it’s better to recut the offending board than try to make it up later in the process
  • Thanks to MalPina Chan, I’ve been finding matte medium to be a more effective adhesive for paper and cloth
  • I had hoped to bind acrylic sheet “pages” to wood “covers” using stiff-leaf technique. Traditional archival book cloth and PVA adhesive won’t stick to acrylic sheeting. I tried acrylic solvent cement, matte medium, 3M 77, carpenter’s glue, and in all cases, if it stuck at all , the coating on the inside of the book cloth just pulled away from the fibers. I finally resorted to packing tape and Gorilla® duct tape. The latter is less fibrous and more matte than the usual duct tape. I don’t know what the longevity of those adhesives is.
  • A whetstone makes a great quick-and-dirty de-burr and polishing tool for glass tiles. I was able to use Weld’s all-purpose solvent cement to attach them to heavy board for one cover.
Artist bookk by Suze Woolf

Burn Book I: pop-up digital prints of 8 burnscape paintings in an accordion-fold book, ribbon, 11” x 40” open, 11” x 5” closed

Artist Book by Suze Woolf

Burn Book II: cut-out digital prints of 8 burnscape paintings on acrylic sheets with smoked wood covers, 12” x 14” open, 12” x 6” closed

Artist Book by Suze Woolf

Peaks & Valleys closed in its clam shell case, ~2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.5″

Peaks and Valleys4OpenandCase (1024x680)

Peaks & Valleys opened out: digital prints backed on non-woven viscose, acrylic paint, board, recycled glass tile

 

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

Quilting Zion

I came home from Zion with (17) 11″x11″ square paintings of the fractal landscape I found right at my feet. I called them “The Rock Textures.” That is, on a day when I wasn’t satisfied with a landscape painting, I cast about for something else to do. I went from the macro to the micro. Then I began to think of the squares as a kind of quilt, a fading patchwork of my memories of the colors and textures.Inspired by an exhibit I saw when I went to Southern Utah University to give a talk abo

Suze Woolf painting of Zion rock textures

Zion Quilt, 35 x 35, watercolor on paper, assembled from 12 rock texture paintings

ut the residency, I’ve also gone to friend Nancy Cluts, a quilting artist. Together, back and forth, we’re collaborating on a fabric quilt of same. She’s working on the interstices between the rock squares. We’ve talked about how water shapes all the rocks you see in Zion. I love the paradox of something soft and warm representing cold, hard stone. I can hardly wait to see the next iteration.

An update, May 2013:

Nancy continues to work on fabric versions, but I decided to experiment with a paper version. Thanks to the experts at Dry Goods Design, I used 2 layers of a non-woven viscose intended for pattern-making. I wanted to make a kind of gridded window mat to act as a frame for 9 of the paintings. After a number of tests on small squares and much deliberation, I decided to add color. It took watercolor paint beautifully, still transparent enough that the covered edges of the paintings showed through. Then I became worried the pattern paper would not be stiff enough to keep from bowing from the thicker watercolor paper.

So I soaked it in Golden’s GAC 400 diluted with glazing medium (thanks, Barbara DePirro) and added another 2 layers to the inside of the sandwich. I traced the locations of the painting squares and trimmed out the windows in the top layer, then cut slits in the back layers so I would be able to insert the paintings into their “pockets”.

This is really where my trouble began, because the back layers were now too stiff to go through my home sewing machine and the slits gaped open and caught on anything nearby. Luckily, Nancy rescued me with her long-arm quilting machine, and I discovered heat-reversible Framer’s Tape II for closing the slits. I then made a edge binding out of unpainted “fabric” and considered it good enough.  It won an award in a local competition.

An assembly of square paintngs on paper by Suze Woolf

Rock texture paintings assembled in a paper quilt

I think I’ll be doing this again, having learned these lessons:

  • Don’t use fabric stiffener until after it’s put together
  • Don’t cut into the pockets until after it’s put together
  • Review how to make a corner on a bound edge before binding the edge 😉
  • I will consider using lightweight fusible interfacing to keep the top layer stable, with luck, still transparent enough to see the edge of the paintings underneath.

Edible Books, deliciously silly sculpture

I want to report in on my effort for this year: The Girl with the Dragon Fondue (with apologies to Stieg Larsson’s estate). Each year for the last seven the Seattle Center for the Book Arts has sponsored this wonderful event. You can come with an entry or you can come to view the entries by paying an admission that benefits the organization (more information here). After they’re judged, we eat them.

I love rising to the challenge; and just as much, I love seeing the wonderful things that others bring in. It satisfies my need for joyful silliness.

I’ve been thinking about The Girl for a while; I rejected the attempt last year because I couldn’t figure out how to bake a bread dragon without some side of him coming out flat. When I saw some armature wire in our local Artist & Craftsmen Supply store, I had the answer.

I constructed three separate pieces – tail, loop and head. The 3-foot size was based on Ila Crawford’s brilliant suggestion of inserting a battery-powered fan in the head to make tissue-paper flames flutter. Alas, I discovered too late that the fan was not powerful enough to send a breeze around the corner of the neck into the head (as well as my failure to consider a source of intake air). So I settled for placing the fan at the base of the fondue dish, which, while a mite unsightly, worked fine.

Another challenge was baking the bread upright on the armature. Gravity acts on bread dough like of all us, bulging and drooping. So I chilled my dough, rolled it out and draped it around the armature as quickly as possible, and set it in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes to set the dough. Then it only required another 20 minutes at 350 to bake. His spine was pita chips, his beard and tail were maifun rice sticks; his horns were sweet pastries. I had to do some last-minute repairs with egg-white glue, which I should have colored to match the dough. The things you think of after the fact…

Some people asked where the girl was. Said I, “I’m the girl, I’ve got the dragon fondue!”

I’m so pleased to have come in second in the popular vote. But even more pleased by all the fascinated children — especially the little boys — who wanted to have their pictures taken with it. Our local paper covered it here, photos here. The UW Daily also covered it here — but it didn’t take me three days, just two afternoons and part of a morning.

Why gesso?

A fellow watercolorist recently contacted me through my website to ask why I use gesso under about half my work. Others may be interested in my rationale:

I don’t put gesso on watercolor paper but on something smoother and cheaper, like BFK Rives printmaking paper. In fact I often buy damaged paper on sale, because it won’t matter by the time I’m done, so long as it’s of archival quality. I usually put 2-3 coats on the side to be painted and 1-2 on the other side, so it doesn’t curl. I just slop it on with a big wet house painting brush, though I’ve tried rolling, scraping, small brush, large brush – and I saw an article in the one of the recent magazines about stamping patterns into it while it’s still wet. I’m certainly not the only person experimenting with it, and I met someone who did a thesis project on it in the late 50s!

Here are some pros and cons:

  • Deep, intense color – the water evaporates and the pigments are sitting on a polymer coating instead of soaking into paper
  • For pictures like The Numbers series, really wet paint slides and intermixes in unpredictable ways
  • More tooth than YUPO, not ridiculously slippery
  • Easy to lift or alter (though staining pigments will never go back to white)
  • Easier to handle very large areas since they don’t have to be done in one quick pass, and the surface stays flatter. I wrapped some 76 x 51-inch pieces around live trees. They’re gesso’d and varnished – I’d never do that with watercolor on traditional paper; too big a risk they’d be ruined by moisture.
  • Possible to layer with interesting effects, e.g. a thinner layer on top of a thicker layer of paint will crawl with useful textures (see the sky in Iterated Cranes)
  • Possible to rub back in with a damp rag for an almost fresco surface (and why I like to brush rather than roller the gesso). See the sky in The Joints of Cranes or Across the Water.
  • Makes a strong presentation when mounted on panel and spray varnished, rather than traditional matting and glazing. Equal in presence to an oil painted canvas on the wall.

On the other hand:

  • it’s harder to get soft edges and transitions
  • it’s hard to impossible to get smooth washes
  • the pieces are more fragile until varnished
  • the process wears down brushes faster. I keep 2 sets, one for gesso and one for watercolor paper.
  • it takes more prep time, so it’s a little less spontaneous.
  • I’ve experimented with partial gesso, but haven’t found it to be very noticeable.
"Industrial Midway" at Centennial Gallery, Kent WA

"Industrial Midway" three 40 x 26 gesso'd panels mounted on wood cradles and varnished.

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!