Why they take so *#$@^* long!

(“They” being my series of artist books made from bark-beetle-damaged wood and bark. Warning, this post is almost as long as the process!)

The Idea

I had the idea maybe as long as 4 or 5 months ago. I saw these paragraphs in the introduction to a textbook about bark beetles:

“Bark beetles play key roles in the structure of natural plant communities and large-scale biomes. They contribute to nutrient cycling, canopy thinning, gap dynamics, biodiversity, soil structure, hydrology, disturbance regimes, and successional pathways. Several species in particular can genuinely be designated as ‘landscape engineers,’ in that they exert stand-replacing cross-scale interactions.

In addition to their ecological roles, some bark beetles compete with humans for valued plants and plant products and so are significant forest and agricultural pests. These species cause substantial socioeconomic losses, and at times necessitate management responses. Bark beetles and humans are both in the business of converting trees into homes, so our overlapping economies make some conflict of interest inevitable.”

Kenneth F. Raffa, Jean-Claude Gregoire and B. Staffan Lindgren, Natural History and Ecology of Bark Beetles, Introduction to Chapter 1 Bark Beetles, Elsevier, 2015.

I started thinking about how I could invoke this competition for resources metaphorically.  I’d collected some particularly handsome beetle galleries on medium-size branches in the Wenatchee National Forest. And I’d been reading one of Diana Six’s papers on the obligate mutualism of certain fungi to bark beetles – the beetles carry the fungi from one tree to another and the fungi convert some of the elements the beetles need to digest tree wood. Certain species leave a calling card—a greyish tone from the sapwood toward the heartwood, called “blue stain.”

Procuring Materials

I asked a Montana friend who used to manage a timber mill if he could get me any of this wood as dimensional lumber. That took a while, as not every supplier bothers to carry it, since it is not popular in appearance and may have the holes of other kinds of beetles. I didn’t need very much, so it wasn’t hard to ship it to me in Seattle.

I received the dimensional lumber about 10 weeks ago.

Laying Out the Cut

I decided to interpolate the branch shape to the 12-inch length of 1×4 over 16 spreads, or 34 pages, counting the inside front and inside back. I did the drawing in Inkscape and had it laser-cut with 36 binding holes, 9 groups of 4, and included those 1 mm holes in the drawing. Over time, I’ve developed a method for making these interpolations successfully.

My interpolated cutting diagram laid out (remember each page has two sides)

I had some leftover 1/8” Baltic birch plywood from a previous project, so I laid out the cuts to fit it. It probably took me 2 days to make the drawing and its imposition onto the wood sheet. Then it turned out my usual local supplier, Fremont Laser & Design, had changed ownership and moved and was just getting started up again. So that took a little time, too. It was cut about 4 weeks ago.

Prepping the Materials

Oh yeah, there’s also soaking both the branch and the plank in Minwax wood hardener. I do that for several reasons: I once heard a story from a curator about an artist’s “organic” work on display from which emerged an army of live insects. So I want to be sure anything still in there is quite dead. Plus it helps stabilize the wood and prevent any further checking or cracking. And there’s the time I sit in the driveway cleaning the frass out of the galleries with an old toothbrush… So a couple of hours there.

Page Graphics

I faced the problem of what I wanted to show on those pages. They looked good by themselves, but I felt I needed to underline the meaning more strongly. I decided to morph an image of the branch into an image of the dimensional lumber, with each gradually taking over from the other over half the book’s pages. That is, in the first half of the book the bark beetle galleries take up more and more of the page—the beetles are winning; then the lumber becomes an increasing proportion of the page—the humans are competing.

This turned out to be a lot harder than I would have guessed. It was no big deal to photograph the dimensional lumber. But it took me several tries to figure out how to create an image of the branch (which is only ~2 inches wide) that I could use across all the different page widths. I knew I needed to “unwrap” the texture of the branch onto a 4”-wide rectangle. The method that finally worked was to stand the branch up on a lazy susan where 180-degrees were marked off in 22.5-degree segments. I set a camera on a tripod in front of the lazy susan, took photos at each 22.5-degree rotation, then used Microsoft Research’s Image Composite Editor to stitch them together.  There went another few days….

180-degrees of the branch in 8 photos, stitched together
Dimensional lumber, blue stain on the upper right

I tried several different apps for morphing one image into the other but wasn’t satisfied with the image quality of any of the video morphing ones. I finally used the animation plug in for GIMP. But I had to figure out the proportions in pixels to have the correct transitions from one texture to the other, as well as how to fade one image into the other, since I didn’t want a harsh line between them. 

My thumbnail drawings and pixel calculations

And of course, with 20 layers, the file was huge and gave me all sorts of computer fits and starts. I finally got it to work, painfully exporting the image graphic for each page, front and back–66 in all.

Then I remembered the spreads needed to face each other, i.e. the image on the left-facing page would be flipped horizontally with respect to the right-facing page. However I could do this in page layout software…  There goes a week.

I sent a PDF file to my partner’s 11 x17 office laser printer, with two of my book pages on an 11 x 17 sheet, but the prints weren’t as vivid and sharp as I had hoped. It turned out my own printer with high quality paper was better. So I re-laid it out on legal size paper, which is the largest I can print in my studio. Then I realized if I was going to use a laser print transfer method, I’d have to flip all the pages back the other way, since the print needed to go toner-side down onto the wood pages.

I also decided I wanted to include the text quoted at the beginning, so that meant going back into each image file of all the pages to add the text. And that the text would have to be reversed. There goes another week…

Laser print transfers for each page

OK, then the process becomes even more laborious. I coated both sides of each wooden page with acrylic gloss medium—two coats, a dry thicker one and a half-water, thinner coat to even out any rugosities. That’s 80 coats in all. Then I do the same thing with all the prints, 80 more. Then I use the same gloss medium to glue them together. I only made one sequence mistake, but it’s not very obvious, so I can live with it.

And speaking of tedious, after the prints-glued-to-wooden-pages dry for 24 hours under weights, the next step is to dissolve the paper off the back of the print. In my experience this usually takes at least three passes. In the first pass I run a sponge over the back of the paper and let it sit for a moment. Then with rough-fingered gardening gloves on, I begin rubbing the paper off. (I have learned to wear gloves, because I have previously rubbed the fingerprints off my fingers, making it difficult to log into my phone!). Once it dries, it’s easy to see how much paper is left to dissolve, and the second pass gets most of it off.  But there is always still another bit of white fog after they dry, meaning there is still more paper to dissolve. And you have to be careful – if you rub too hard, you will tear or pull off the thin film of toner embedded in acrylic medium.

Trimming any excess film off is also nerve-wracking, because you don’t want to nick the wood and have light spots interfere with the handsome laser-cut edges. This proved to be quite difficult to do on my interior interpolated holes.

Then I coated each page with wax medium and let it dry. This acts as a sealing varnish that, unlike most other varnishes, won’t stick to itself since the book is usually stored closed.  All in all, the coating, transfer, and varnishing phase takes another week.

The best way to see how this came out is in this video: Bark Beetle Book Vol. XXXIV page animation.

Binding

Finally, it’s time to bind the pages. I had included those 1 mm holes in the laser-cutting. Why did I include so many?!? Why did I make them so small!?!? In the binding method I used, modified Coptic, each station or hole requires its own needle. I didn’t have 36 needles that would fit into the holes with an eye large enough to accommodate my hand-dyed, 3-ply Kevlar thread. I had about 20 needles the right size and tried dipping the ends of the rest of the threads into glue to stiffen them, so they could act like shoelace aglets, but it was too slow and frustrating to get through the holes and wrap back around the stitches without needles. So several trips two different stores to acquire the right size needles.

At last I began binding, back to front. But not only did it take a long time to go over/in/out/wrap-around-the-stich and pull-through each of 36 stations, but when I coated each page with multiple layers of gloss medium, all the little sewing holes had become stopped up with acrylic. I had to take a nail and pound out each hole before I could sew the page.

Worse, by the time I got to the middle of the book and measured my remaining thread, I knew I hadn’t calculated the length of thread required correctly. My fall-back strategy was to begin binding front to back with new thread to meet and interlace in the middle. And of course I had to dye, dry and separate more thread. Two more weeks. And then…

Finally done!

Bark Beetle Book Vol. XXXIV: Resource Competition
Rear view
Half way through the book the beetles have taken over.
Near the end of the book, the manufactured wood is ahead.

Plein air peut-être?

The Mona Lisa wearing a mask

Notes from an article originally written for the Northwest Watercolor Society’s June 2020 newsletter with tips that may be useful to others

Most likely you know that plein air means outdoors in French (literally “full air”). It refers to the tradition begun by the Impressionists of going outside to paint from life. It was the invention of small, ready-made, soft-metal, portable paint tubes that made it possible. Peut-être is French for “might be,” or “maybe.”

Little will bring more freshness – and challenge! – to your work quite as much as painting outdoors from life. From Thomas Moran to David Hockney, whenever I see an exhibit that pairs artists’ large studio paintings with their preparatory studies, I always love the studies. They may be smaller, less grandiose and less accurate—but they are so much more direct, personal and free.

I also find that it’s something I have to practice regularly; it’s more like a sport: you can’t expect to score a win if you don’t practice. For many years I have participated in an annual plein air competition in late fall, so I am highly motivated to “train” all summer.

And since this kind of painting is honestly one of the harder things to do, you have to be easy on yourself.

Just as last summer, a group of us are still planning to go outside to paint once a week.   Depending on the state and local orders in force at the time, it might have to be 6-feet-apart, masked and gloved. Or separate in our home gardens with a video meeting afterwards.

NWWS_PlienAir_060519_7607

Suze at Gasworks Park in 2019 (James McFarlane photo)

 

This year there is so much we can’t assume: the parking lots of some city parks are still off limits to parking. Restrooms may not be open. Restaurants, if open, may be only open for take-out. Besides the painting gear outlined below, add masks, gloves and hand-sanitizer to your kit.  We are planning to maintain a sign-in sheet should there be any need for future contact tracing (and will not be used for any other purpose).

Here are some of the tips and practices I have found helpful:

Painting gear:

  • Lightweight folding easel and several sheets of paper that fit on it. Some people bring lightweight folding chairs and paint on a board in their laps, but I like standing because my arm is freer. Some people work in small sketchbook; my preference is separate quarter-sheets.
  • Small closing palette that fits on my easel shelf, with my go-to landscape colors in it (always in the same order so I don’t have to hunt for a pigment)
  • Several favorite brushes – I can get away with only a 1-inch flat, two sizes of rounds and a rigger
  • A camera – I always take a photo between the end of my pencil sketch and starting to paint. Rarely do I ever refer back to it, but just taking the photo allows me to paint more freely knowing I have a backup if something unforeseen occurs. (Yes, there was that time they turned the sprinklers on me at Gasworks when I was only half-finished : – )
  • Water cups that fit on my easel
  • A filled water bottle with a carabiner on its handle; I can clip it and/or my backpack the easel for extra stability if it’s breezy.
  • A pencil case with pencil, pencil sharpener, white vinyl and kneaded erasers, clips to hold my paper to my easel’s board, a Swiss Army knife, pen, and a few business cards
  • A quick snack like some almonds, a piece of fruit or a granola bar. We may go for lunch afterwards if there’s a quorum and a convenient spot, but sometimes I need a boost before well before then.
  • Travel mug – that way you can’t stick your brush in your beverage.
  • Sun screen

And now:

  • Hand sanitizer, mask, gloves

Clothing:

  • Cathy Gill so rightly says, “First the artist must be comfortable.” Dress in layers you can put on or take off, depending on the weather. I always have a spare lightweight jacket and warm hat with me, as I get cold easily standing still whatever the temperature. Sometimes I’ll wear long underwear if it’s less than 60 degrees and breezy, as well as fingerless wool gloves.
  • Sun hat with a big brim that shades your eyes and covers the back of your neck. I don’t like to wear sunglasses because they distort my color perception, so that hat is really important. Picking a location where your board and paper are in the shade and not reflecting glare into your eyes helps too.
  • As it gets warmer, one of my layers is a big white long sleeved shirt, so I only have to put the sun-goo on my hands and face.

Useful practices:

  • I like to walk around a little and review possible subjects before I settle on a particular one. This is one reason it’s nice to have an easy way to carry your stuff: I use a backpack; some folks have rolling carriers.
  • If possible, orient your paper and board 90 degrees to the scene you’re painting. That way you’ll be reacting to your painting at least as much as to reality.
  • Especially early and late in the shoulder seasons, reverse the usual light-to-dark watercolor practice and paint the shadows first because they’ll be changing the fastest. You can also do a quick value sketch to fix the darks before they’re changed positions.
  • I always ask myself, “why is this going to be a painting and not a photograph,” another reminder that I need not be a slave to the reality in front of me. Or, as my colleague Spike Ress once said to me, “you can lie…”

I can’t tell you how much I hope to see you out there, because it means I’ll be able to get out there too!

Suze Woolf

Art in the Time of Coronavirus, or, “The Big Tree”

AnimationDay01-28It will not surprise you to hear I made myself a massive, hunker-down, shelter-in-place project, now nearly three-quarters completed.

In January I received the people’s choice award at a local juried show. One option for the award is an exhibit on a large wall above the checkout counter at a nearby public library. Before the lockdown went into effect, I made it over there to check out the space. One side of the wall is 24 feet wide, with about 6 feet of vertical space. There is also a smaller wall on the other side of a central doorway.

I’ve always meant to try one of my burned tree paintings on the lengthwise axis of a roll of watercolor paper — but been intimidated by the time commitment required. With my beloved wilderness off-limits, I knew I needed something demanding to do.

When completed it will be 22 feet long (not quite an entire roll  of 30 feet : -) Since I don’t have room to work on something that big in my studio, I’m doing it in sections that will hang abutted. I figure if John Grade’s immense Middle Fork sculpture was created in sections, I can do it, too.

I’ll mount them so they can be hung either vertically or horizontally, though I expect most venues will need it to be horizontal.

Panels 1-6 of 7 at home lo res

Panels 1-6: I don’t have enough floor space in the largest room I have to lay them out!

Two friends independently dubbed it “Water Lilies of the Anthropocene.” While it’s nowhere near the size of Monet’s largest water lily paintings, it’s the largest of my 12-year preoccupation with wildland fires, as their remains increase in frequency and severity in our warming climate. The library is excited about it and plans to do some programming around it. I’m excited because lots of people will see it — whenever we can visit libraries once again.

I’ve just starting panel 7 of 7, at ~18.5 feet now. Between that and varnishing and mounting, I think it will take another 3-4 weeks. The animation at the top of this post represents 28 painting days, with 7 panel prep days as well.

We have all had plans and dreams interrupted by the virus. I wish us all good health, an easing of the stresses and strictures, and a chance to show what we’ve been working on during this pandemic siege.

UPDATE May 1, 2020:

The painting portion is finally finished (there’s still varnishing, creating shaped boards to mount them on and mounting them to do).

My photos don’t quite do it justice — it is too large to lay out in any contiguous space in my studio, so each panel has been photographed separately and digitally composited. The color-matching across panels is more accurate in the painting than in these photos.

Big Tree Final (4096x783)

The Big Tree,” Watercolor on torn paper, 49″ x 262″ (21’10”)

It’s fun to see it in its possible vertical orientation, too. One thing that surprised me: the panels also look surprisingly meaningful as separate side-by-side pieces.

Photo of Suze Woolf painting in store window
Proposed window display of 5 of 7 panels, side-by-side orientation

Any suggestion for a title welcome!

UPDATE October 1, 2020:

Panel 2 of what I finally decided to call The Magnitude of the Problem has been accepted into the Northwest Watercolor Society’s 80th Annual International Exhibit (online this pandemic year).  It will be viewable beginning the evening of October 27.

Iteration = Inspiration

My respected colleague Iskra Johnson recently posed a question in her blog, “Who Is Your Muse?” in which she tags her mother as an ongoing source of inspiration.

I found myself thinking of my inspiration as coming from multiple gods rather than a single muse—that is, each work in a series builds on the previous one. When I worked with a team of program managers and software developers, at the end of every project we held a post mortem in hopes of gaining even better results on the next project. While every project had different parameters — context, deadline, team members, audience and so on — one finding was always the same: “I wish we had/allowed/planned for more time at the end so we could make more than only “must-do” fixes.  We didn’t know we’d have these better ideas until we saw the first (alpha), second (beta), third (final or release) version…”

The practice of iteration is sorely underrated. Defining imagination as an ability to envision that which doesn’t yet exist, most people — even artists — have less imagination than they think do. But the great thing about the self-directed practice of fine art is that you can keep iterating, if you acknowledge it as your muse

Seeing how the last creation came out is often the prompt for the next idea… 

Sometimes those ideas never seem to stop! Below you see my third artist book made from bark-beetle damaged wood and my twenty-fifth…. This video explains some of my inspiration, process and collaborations.

Bark Beetle Book Vol III: Bug Ruts

Bark Beetle Book Vol. III: Bug Ruts. Pine-beetle-bored bark in epoxy resin, laser-cut iron-oxide dyed felt pages, wire-edge bound with wooden “worry” beads. 9.25″L x 5″W x 2.5″H plus strings

vol xxiv composite (764x1024)

Bark Beetle Book Vol. XXV: What the Beetles Wrote. Wood with mountain pine beetle galleries, hand-made paper-cast from mountain pine beetle and other beetle galleries; iron-oxide dyed non-woven viscose book cloth. 11″H x 9.5″W x 7.5″D

2- and 3-D technology in service of an organic artist book – persistence required

Some people may already know that I have a not-so-secret life as a book artist, as well as a painter. One body of my work as a painter is large portraits of individual burned trees. (See the Burnscape section of my website.) Spending recreational time in the wilderness all over the American West has brought me in close contact with large burned-over areas. I also began to notice the number of dead trees in forests that otherwise seemed fine. I saw what seemed like writing or hieroglyphics on the inner bark of dying trees.

It turns out there are thousands of species of bark beetles, most of which are happily decomposing already-dead wood. But a few species that attack living trees en masse have become epidemic thanks to climate change: warmer winters don’t kill off the larvae and warmer, longer summers allow them more reproduction cycles. And drought- or heat-stressed trees are more vulnerable. Working with two entomologists and a forester, I’ve created a series of artist books on the topic.

Vol XIV composite (1024x514)

Bark Beetle Book Vol. XIV Ars datum est
16.5”H x 4.5” diam.
Log with fir-engraver galleries*, laser-cut and engraved mat board pages,
laser-transfers, paint, linen thread

For example, Volume XIV, Ars datum est above, is made from an actual Eastern Washington log, with laser-cut pages bound into its center. Each page is essentially a bar from a bar chart representing areas of British Columbia and Alberta affected by mountain pine beetle from 1999-2007 – so the book is art and data, too.

My most recent  bark beetle book was definitely the most technically ambitious one I’ve tried yet, and I learned quite a bit in the process.

Bark Beetle Book Vol. XVIII
27” x 3.5” diam.
Maple branch covers, laser-cut and engraved bamboo pages, tea-dyed wool felt, linen thread

I collected a branch with many beetle galleries on it, interesting to me because, with rot, the larval galleries were dark-on-light instead of the more typical light-on-dark. It suggests intra-tree spread: the number of engraved galleries* on the pages increases from bottom to top as you page through the book.

The branch was somewhat curved and also twisted along the axis of its split. I thought the best way to create pages for such a irregular, non-rectangular shape might be to obtain a 3D model of each half, create the solid between them and then slice it in software. Unable to find a local service bureau for 3D scanning, a mechanical engineering friend created a seat-of-the-pants XYZ data capture system composed of 2 rulers, a radial arm saw and digital calipers.

DSC07922 (2)

It took me an entire day to take (4) XYZ measurements at 1-centimeter intervals along one half of the branch. And I now realize this is just too coarse, I missed some key features in the shape.

After a lot of work trying to understand how to import an XYZ data cloud Fusion360, we eventually succeeded in making the data points operable, creating the solid volume between to the 2 branch half models, adding binding holes and slicing it. I also traced the actual ragged fore-edge, imported that line and created a second solid to chomp into fore-edge of the book page solid, so that it would have some of the nicks and craters of the beetle galleries where they cross the edges from front edge to back edge. Slicer, a Fusion360 app, at least made the slicing easy and generated flat cutting patterns. Then I traced some of the beetle galleries onto the cutting patterns for engraving.

wireframe editedSlicer Screen Shot5 thumbnail

Binding the book was equally challenging because:

  • not all the page pieces met along the spine edge,
  • some were too small to put binding holes in,
  • and despite choosing the straightest edge as the binding side, there was enough of a curve that even with elastic thread I couldn’t bind across that big a gap.

So it’s “differentially” bound; that is, sewn where spine-side page edges met best.  Some of the tiny and/or non-spine side slices were glued to the branch wood before binding. I used pieces of tea-dyed felt as end-papers to soften the stair-stepped edges of the glued-in pieces and to hide the ends of the binding threads.

About 9 weeks…. Phew!


Many, many thanks to Jon Cluts and Rafael Machado de Lima Silva at UW Bothell’s Maker Space; Tom Stone, who made the data capture system and helped me work out how to get the data usable in Fusion360; also to Per Steenstrup and his brother on the latter task; to the support folks at ponoko who helped troubleshoot my cutting/engraving files. And Steve, who likes to be away from home so he can’t hear the cursing when I can’t get something to work : – )


*Galleries is the term most often used to describe the complex patterns that the larvae chew between the bark and the sap wood. I’ve also seen them called larval mines.

Colorado-Utah-Colorado

I was fortunate to be invited back to Willowtail Springs to collaborate with Lorena Williams, a wildland firefighter and author, thanks to the Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation.  Scheduling was complicated, with Lorena only available after the fire season ended, and my commitment to the annual Zion Plein Air Invitational at almost the same time. So I split my time at Willowtail before and after Zion.  I won’t go in to any details of what we’ve cooked up until I’ve got something to show for it, but suffice it to day that we’re both excited.

During my 26 days away from home, I:

-drove 2 days down, 2 back and 2 back-and-forth between Mancos, Colorado, to Zion, Utah
-did 11 hikes, 6 of them new to me
-painted 12 small landscapes and 2 new burned trees
-sold 8 pictures, including one of the big burned trees

Here are some of my favorites from this time at Willowtail and Zion:

Left: Blazed, 52″H x 20″W varnished watercolor on torn paper (sold)
Top right: Country Rock 11″ x 15″ watercolor on paper
Bottom right: Above the Checkerboard Mesa Viewpoint 11″x 15″ watercolor on paper (sold)

At Peggy Cloy’s request, I started taking photos of each day’s progress. This sequence shows Jolie laide evolving – not as beautiful as Blazed, above, but perhaps the more powerful piece.

Jolie laide sequence (1024x318)

Jolie laide, not-yet-varnished watercolor on torn paper, 52″H x 24″W

The detail in the lower right quadrant took the longest, but it’s also where I began to feel as if juggling so many colors and values might just work out after all. It’s one of the more complex and anthropomorphic of the series, like Knotted.

I’m a reasonably disciplined person wherever I am, but there is something about leaving home that allows you to be productive and focus that much more intently. And new places always give me new ideas.

 

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

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!)