Playa Summer Lake

As part of the climate-change Surge exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Art, artist-scientist teams were invited to visit Playa art colony on the edge of the Great Basin, in south central Oregon. It’s the northern edge of the country so well described in one of my favorite of John McPhee’s geology works, Basin and Range.

Summer Lake is a shallow lake that in this Anthropocene warmer age goes almost dry in the summer, leaving behind a vast, flat playa of white mud in various stages of drying and cracking. West of Playa’s collection of cabins, studios and lodge, a volcanic uplift called the Winter Rim rises nearly 3000 feet above the lake.

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“Skate skiing” on the playa

I spent a number of days exploring this landscape. Subject to a severe bark beetle outbreak around 2002-2003, much of the nearby forest burned not long thereafter. I even found examples of trees with both beetle galleries and char, neatly combining two of my most extensive bodies of work: painted portraits of individual burned trees and artist books incorporating complex galleries of bark beetles.

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Both burned and chewed

The epidemic outbreak of bark beetles is the subject of the 9 artist books on display in the Surge exhibit; my project while at Playa was to complete an explanatory video to accompany the exhibit.

One problem with artist books on exhibit is they sit in a case and viewers can’t experience them directly (and given that they are unique and sometimes fragile, it’s appropriate). So I wanted to offer a way for viewers to understand what they were seeing, my motivations and processes and some of the science underlying the visual experience. You can see the 8.5 minute video here.

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As is my habit wherever I am, I also painted small landscapes, trying to capture some of the sense of the sky and playa, which I later made into a small book that I sent back to them.

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Playa 6, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

I was deeply honored that entomology professor Dr. Diana Six came from the University of Montana to spend time on the project with me. My understanding of the issues and her work with them grew exponentially during our time together. Playa’s blog, Edge Effects, published a short article about us here.

July was predictably hot – and perhaps equally predictably, the forest that Dr. Six and I tromped through erupted with the Watson Creek Fire in the Fremont National Forest not long after we left.

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