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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Tenacity

I was listening to a Digital Fabrication Residency talk by Laura Splan about her biologically-inspired bodies of work incorporating digital technologies such as machine embroidery, laser cutting, 3D-printing etc. She used the word tenacity to describe that state of exciting and anxious exploration of what the tools can do on a deadline. “Failure isn’t an option but it’s also an expectation.” This statement gongs through my head as I tediously adjust my 52 Inkscape vector drawings for probably twentieth time. She also says to pace yourself, know at what point you have to accept what you can accomplish and when you have make compromises with your original vision. Not bad advice in any endeavor ; – )

Here are some interim points along my own project path. The vision is two artist books, Siamese-twinned at the spines, one small (5″ x 12″) and one large (16″ x 12″). The pages and covers will eventually cut from clear acrylic, though right now I am working with a test run on cardboard. LED lights in the conjoined spine will fluoresce light out to the edges of the acrylic sheets. The object(s) will either sit on a table as separate books or be wall-mounted vertically together.

The vision has taken me into some familiar territory: using vector software to interpolate one shape to another over a series of steps so that the “slices” or “pages” describe an overall volume. (I enjoy the multiple meanings of “volume” –dimensional form and particular book.) Those shapes are then laser cut.

Photo of Laser-cut cardboard dummy of the smaller book

Laser-cut cardboard dummy of the smaller book.

Photo of laser-cut cardboard book dummy

Laser-cut cardboard dummy of the larger book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of linen thread and cardboard test pages

Here I’m testing my binding method on a cardboard dummy of the small book’s shaped pages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But some of the skills are outside my comfort zone. I’ve learned not only to design and animate, but also program the firmware on my BlinkyTape strip of 60 LEDs. I had some help soldering on an additional 60 LEDs (thanks Mark!). After traveling down many dead-ends it was a moment of great triumph when they all lit up in the pattern I had created. (Thanks, Maarten and Mets!)

Photo of BlinkyTape soldered to NeoPixel LED strip

This image shows two strips of LEDs soldered together and running a subtle animation of blue-to-green-to-lighter blue and back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have created the design for a cast acrylic part to hold the LEDs in the spine in Fusion360 but don’t dare get it printed or milled until the book is bound and I know its exact measurements. (Thanks, Erik and Kari!)

A recent rendering of the custom part for holding the LEDs butting the pages up them.

A recent rendering of the custom part for holding the LEDs and butting the pages up them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It feels as if the project will never get finished. So many pieces to fit together, so much time spent learning. One step forward for every two steps back… And what if it isn’t cool?!? Not only does it take tenacity and persistence, but faith that the end result will be worth seeing.

A Stay-at-Home Residency

Usually I blog when I head out on the road, but I wanted to share a stationary experience. I’m in the midst of an online residency — we have fuze lectures and conference calls, do tutorials, work up files for samples and, hopefully, create a finished project in a four-week period. The theme is digital fabrication: software-driven laser-cutting, 3D printing, CNC milling and routing, textile printing, digital embroidery and so forth, offered by Digital Fabrication Residency of Easton, Maryland. (Of course, being online, location is irrelevant.) Kari and Erik are incredibly knowledgeable and generous with their time and learning.

It’s an opportunity for me to unite my dormant inner geek with my artistic practice. While I still think of myself primarily as a painter, artist books have become another important medium. They offer dimension, intimacy, proceed through time, carry a lot of cultural baggage, and can exist somewhere other than on a wall.

I had already been exploring laser cutting as a means to make rigid pages for my rockbound books, such as Snowline and Canyon:

Rockbound Book: Snowline. Sliced snowflake obsidian covers, stiff leaf bound with viscose fabric to laser-cut mat board pages; CNC-routed wooden case.

Rockbound Book: Snowline. Sliced snowflake obsidian covers, stiff leaf bound with viscose fabric to laser-cut mat board pages; CNC-routed wooden case.

Photo of Suze Woolf artist book

Rockbound Book: Canyon. Sliced chert stiff-leaf-bound to laser-cut matboard pages with viscose fabric. CNC-routed wooden case.

Now I am learning to visualize and execute an additional variety of processes.

The books have been evolving. They began with re-use of original paintings through reproductions. Somewhere in the first ten or so, I realized that matching the book’s form and materials to the painted subject matter was at least as exciting as the paintings-as-pages. More recent examples these books not only don’t need text, they don’t even need images. The form and the materials *are* the narrative!

Photo of Suze Woolf artist book

Elephant Canyon Volume. Sandstone covers, laser-cut mat board pages, strung on elastic cords. The book “opens” by pulling up the top cover.

The residency is helping me see that a subtext (so to speak) of my preoccupation with the natural world is melding machine techniques with organic forms and materials. To me, if there’s no sense of nature, the artist’s hand, or an inviting surface in the end result I’ve failed. So I’m thrilled on many levels with this residency, and it follows a common artistic development:

  1. learning new techniques…
  2. doing the old stuff in new ways…
  3. uncovering latent themes…
  4. generating new ideas, seeing new ways to do new things.

I’ll be excited to share images of the results when they’re finished.

A Teachable Moment for the Teacher

October 31- Nov 2

I had a wonderful group of friendly, curious, eager Grand Canyon Trust members who came out to Kane Ranch for a watercolor workshop at the end of my stay there. Many teachers’ valuable voices ring in my head, so I made it my goal to do the same for these folks.

“What is ‘The What?’” (Thanks Cathy Gill). Or as I now put it, “why is should this be a painting and not a photograph? What is it I am bringing to it?”

We did a color intermixing exercise first, and then painted fruits and vegetables. Kate said, “This pepper is voluptuous!” And lo, her painting was rich with passionate color, and bright with reserved whites of the paper.

“Put it down and leave it alone.”

“Nature doesn’t come out of the end of a tube.” That is, most pigments for color in the landscape need to be modified — greyed or softened — for one reason or another.

“Beautiful Paint” (Thanks, Tom Hoffmann and Jonelle Johnson)

“You can lie.” (Thanks, Spike Ress). That is, YOU are the master of the picture, you are not a slave to reality. If the tent looks better closer to Saddle Mountain than it is, make it so.

“Perfection is not my goal. Let it go.” My friend Kate Barber exemplifies this philosophy of painting. Many of us want to learn this in life as well as painting!

“Br-r-rush Str-o-u-kes” (Thanks Alvaro Castagnet. You have to imagine the mix of Uruguayan and Australian accents.)

The real revelation for me was how much my own painting improved while I was giving demos. Repeating these mantras reminded me of everything I know but often lose sight of in the intensity of capturing the scene. I intentionally don’t teach much – life is short and at my age I don’t have a long career ahead of me. I selfishly want to devote as much time as I can to actually painting. But this experience might change my perception!

Suze Woolf watercolor painting of Kane Ranch, Arizona

Kane Ranch from the south, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″ This early-morning plein air piece turned into a spontaneous demo. It was windy enough that I stood in the lee of the platform tents, and alas, the wind built all day — not ideal for a landscape painting workshop!

Echo Cliffs Sunrise

Echo Cliffs Sunrise, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″. We spent a lot of time observing the cloud formations, figuring out how to convey them without rendering them literally. (Always difficult, since they change so fast around House Rock Valley!)

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

 

Do I paint from photos? Sort of…

This morning my windows are fogged up from cold air for the first time.

Yesterday local artist Roxanne Everett guided me most of the way up McGregor Mountain – over one hundred switchbacks to a Park Service radio repeater on the summit. We made it as far as a campsite 1000’ below the summit, which is still 5600’ of elevation gain. My knees are threatening mutiny. It was glorious to be in alpine terrain once again. The blueberries were ripe, the larches haven’t begun to turn, but there was a real chill in the ambient air, made more dramatic by a brisk wind. Later it was quite warm but only down in the valley. I better understand the geography from seeing it from so high above. I was sentimental to see glacier-bound peaks I climbed 30 years ago.

A quick sketch of Dome Peak from McGregor Mountain. Behind the painting is the outline drawing across three small sheets of watercolor paper that will be a panorama of a similar view.

A quick sketch of Dome Peak from McGregor Mountain. Behind the painting is the outline drawing done on location across three small sheets of watercolor paper. It will become a more expansive panorama of the same view.

When I am with other people who may not be inclined to wait 2 hours in the cold for me to paint a complete picture, I still bring my paper and board. I make a rough outline of what I intend to paint and take a photo. Most people are willing to wait the 5-10 minutes that takes . It’s important to capture the proportions as I see them — or perhaps as I exaggerate them — which no camera will do. Color is somewhat arbitrary and personal anyway, and the camera does an OK job of capturing basic light and dark values. (It does tend to miss shadow and highlight subtleties.) I still like to paint the sheet as soon as possible after returning.

So far into this residency I seem only able to tackle scenic landscapes. I have already accumulated some wonderful source material of fire-sculpted trees, especially from the 2010 Rainbow Bridge fire. These will be great fodder for large studio paintings in the future.

Near Rainbow Bridge, 2010 burn.

Near Rainbow Bridge, 2010 burn.

I have been reading Flames in Our Forest by Stephen Arno, which makes the case for fire as a necessary factor in a healthy and diverse forest. But I haven’t yet done enough time alone, putting one foot after the other, to stretch for a deeper connection between the artistic process and the meaning of the work.

It’s like I have to get through all that beauty first.

 

Postscript September 22: I realize I should have posted the photo I took as well. You can see how different the proportions are between my interest — the distant massif — and what the point-and-shoot snapshot shows.

DomeSnapshot (640x480)

In the footsteps of Maynard Dixon

Yesterday I went for a morning constitutional up Angel’s Landing before the 7:00am shuttle arrived (1400 feet, 5.4 miles, according to the shuttle narration). It gets easier each time. Then I went hunting for the view Maynard Dixon painted which adorns the cover of the Zion Natural History Association’s centennial book on art and the park, A Century of Sanctuary. I found it, and noted what he modified. Now I will try my own version. I’ll post it if it comes out OK.

But I am building up a backlog of quick-and-dirty drawings to paint. (My method, either when it’s too hot, too cold or my wilderness companions are too impatient for me to spend 1-2 hours painting on location, is to do a pencil outline drawing of my chosen subject. I can always retrieve value and color from a snapshot, but the proportions I see, and the way my subject becomes a center of interest, can’t be duplicated by any camera.)