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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Another point of view on art or litter

Today I went back to Tree Futures with a ladder to make sure everything was as it was supposed to be – unvandalized, not drooping, etc. Which it was.

This time I encountered a different neighbor who asked if it was my work. He had called the park department: he and his neighbors felt the art was fine but it should be where there was more man-made disturbance like down in the playfield. He said this “side trail” was “one of the last places like this left in Seattle” and it should remain wild . He said he liked the art work, but  thought it was in the wrong place and the uplands should not be part of the exhibit. He also felt it encouraged tagging, graffiti and vandalism. He clearly thought I had spray-painted the green arrows on the tree in the middle of the trail, which also has the corrugated cardboard wrap up higher. I said I had seen the Water Department marking the site which I found shocking. (When I was there measuring trees I had encountered two workers tracing the sewer lines. They had sprayed the tree, a part of the trail and two manhole covers now covered in seasonal vegetation.) I’m distressed that people might logically assume I was responsible.

I’m completely sympathetic to the argument that wild places should be left alone. I didn’t argue that Carkeek Park is not in fact pristine wilderness (having been logged, farmed, mined etc. in the past), but the feeling is completely understandable. This gives me new and uncomfortable feelings about my own choices — I went for the best grove of trees with the best branch clear-heights for the work, with the full knowledge that it’s a temporary installation.

I wonder how many neighbors have altered Andy Goldsworthy installations?

Art Installation or Litter?

Art or Garbarge?

Art or Garbage?

Followers know that earlier this week, and with the help of stalwart friends, I installed Tree Futures in Seattle’s Carkeek Park as part of Heaven and Earth IV: Rootbound. Imagine my distress when I returned with my family the next evening to discover it all cut down, in a pile at the bottom of one of the trees. Certainly in that position, it did look like refuse.

To be sure, during the installation period there was no signage announcing that these objects around the trees were sanctioned Art and not an elaborate form of illicit Tagging. One of the beauties of the exhibit is that both casual and purposeful walkers share a sense of sudden discovery (though there is a map on the Rootbound site).

Once I got over the initial shock, I realized I owed it to all of the friends, colleagues, non-profits and businesses who had donated time, money and encouragement to re-install. Most of the elements had been untied rather than destroyed — though the cords holding the gloves had been slashed into many pieces. It was hard not to read this as rage — the most severe critic I’ve yet encountered!

So 4 days after the original install, I was back — this time with my ever-patient spouse Steve, the exhibit curator David Francis, and fellow artist, sculptor Peppé. The weather was not so cooperative. Seattle’s rainy reputation is indeed based in reality. It was heartwarming and validating that during this rainy task, three neighbors came by and asked what had happened. One had even come back in the interim with his camera. They all expressed dismay at the vandalism, pleasure in the installation and support. So now Tree Futures is back where you will find it on the exhibit map, albeit a little higher up the trees. When the weather improves, I’ll get new photos of the re-installation posted, which includes two new wraps — a veneer collar (for all the trees used in construction and consumables) and blackberry canes (for the threat of invasive species).

***

My friend Pati helped me work through the experience: someone saw only garbage on “their” turf, presumably without contemplating the possibility that it was a sanctioned activity in a community space. This destruction is consistent with our all-too-human trait of acting without consideration of others or a realization of what we don’t understand. One neighbor declared it an act of ignorance. This particular work represented forests; it’s humans who destroy and protect forests.

Installing “Tree Futures”

Yesterday I was privileged to have the help of two friends to begin the outdoor installation of my work for CoCA’s Heaven and Earth IV: Rootbound.

It was a typical Seattle June day: dripping and cool. Several dog walkers and joggers wanted to know what we were doing, but seemed quite happy with  our answer: “It’s an art project — and the artist is behind the tree.”

Ooops, popped a grommet

Ooops, popped a grommet

First Tier of Gloves

First Tier of Gloves

Wrapping grass

Material manipulation

Here is my site:

Tree Futures site

Tree Futures site

It’s strange for this artist to be working so hard on a project which will not result in a painting. Tree Futures, the outdoor installation described in my previous post, is more like working on software development than painting a picture. Who will do what when, what has to happen first, what supplies, how many hands needed and most of all, making the design flexible enough to accommodate last-minute changes.

I’ve been fortunate in getting help with materials and fabrication:

Here are the beginnings of some of the assemblies:

The first layer of wood chips in biodegradable bags

The first layer of wood chips in biodegradable bags

All 6 layers of the kraft paper wrap

All 6 layers of the kraft paper wrap

The first layer of used work gloves

The first layer of used work gloves

Corrugated Cardboard Wrap

The first layer of single-face corrugated cardboard wrap.