Stehekin Re-Bound

I’ve been back in the remote valley of my 2013 North Cascades National Park residency for an exhibit of my work at the Golden West Visitor Center Gallery. It’s a treat to be here again, to take the long boat ride up Lake Chelan, reacquaint myself with the people who were so welcoming, and re-visit some of the beautiful places that inspired me. Self-evidently it’s different in the spring than the fall – bright greens instead of golds, tongues of snow still reaching down the gullies from the heights, roiling water in the rivers and creeks, fields of flowers… a few more of the burned trees have fallen over but most of the char is still iridescent. I hiked up to re-visit the “live” models for Corrugated, Knotted, Trochanter, and De-Limbed shown below. I’m happy to see some of the kids from my day in the school last year at the opening.

Photo of Suze Woolf exhibit, Stehekin Lands and Burns

Several landscape views (framed) and individual burned tree watercolor paintings at the Golden West Visitor Center Gallery in Stehekin, Washington.

Suze Woolf painting of fireweed near Stehekin WA

Fireweed above Rainbow Bridge is the work I donated to the North Cascades National Park in partial fulfillment of my term as 2013 Artist-in-Residence. It is watercolor on paper, 20.5 x 33.25 (32 x 45 framed), with singed edges.

Suze Woolf photo of arnica under burned trees

Arnica blooming — rather than fireweed going to seed — under the Rainbow Bridge burn.


The tyranny of sight

Now that I have been home almost a week, the memories of Stehekin are inevitably beginning to recede, and the annual painting competition in November in Zion looms next. Getting the supplies, the car winterized, teeth cleaned, bills paid and so forth before leaving again takes focused attention.

I still have quite a few Stehekin drawings waiting to be turned into paintings, and I contemplate which of my studies from there will become larger paintings. I worked on one post-location sketch during this busy week: just below Heaton Camp on McGregor, where we met the snow- and alpine larch-line (about 6500 feet). It was a spectacular place on a perfect day, everything I hoped for in coming to the residency.

Still inspired but somewhat freed from the reality of the place, the feeling comes through. You can see difference between my photographic note-taking and the painting. Much as l love painting in the actual environment, sometimes not being there allows you to channel the emotion, freed from matching what you see. For those of us driven to represent places, sometimes the look of the place gets in the way of the spirit of the place.

Suze Woolf photo of McGregor Mountain

The photo I took, roughly the same view that I drew while standing in the snow.

Suze Woolf painting of McGregor Mountain trail

“Just below Heaton Camp” watercolor on hotpress paper, 11″ x 15″

Stehekin meant “the way through” in a local Native American language. The dip in the distant blue mountains of the picture is the low pass through the crest of the North Cascades, and the source of the river that flows through the Stehekin valley — a fitting last day.

Stehekin Farewell – almost

Two full days left. I will hate to leave. The weather has turned for the better, at least for the next few days; the autumn color is at its peak. My paintings are getting better (I think): less precious and tight, looser and more inspired.

Suze Woolf watercolor painting of the old Stehekin schoolhouse

The old Stehekin Schoolhouse is on the register of National Historic Places. (watercolor on paper 15″ x 11″)

While they will grow somewhat in the next two days, here are some descriptive stats for the last 25 days:

-26 completed paintings (two were 51” individual large burned trees, see my website for examples)
-10 drawings still to paint
-19 journal pages
-2,047 blogged words (including these but excluding photo captions)
-597 photos (yes I have backed up my computer to an external hard drive!)
-143 trail miles on foot (there were 6 days where I did no walking at all)
-28,800 feet of elevation gain
-178 hours painting, hiking to painting locations or delivering programs
-6 dinners residents invited me home for
-Countless waves on the road

Suze Woolf watercolor painting of fireweed

Fireweed in the Rainbow Bridge fire site (watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″)

(Yes, I am a little compulsive…)

Apples for the teacher

Today I gave a watercolor lesson at the Stehekin School. There are seven children; they were all attentive and willing to concentrate. We painted some color mixes and then moved on to apples. I paraphrased Robert Irwin’s “seeing begins when naming ends.” Too fun! I can’t believe I only have four full days left.

Photo of class apple paintings

Our paintings on my watercolor paper; they had red/blue/yellow temperas, so I used my red/blue/yellow watercolor pigments. (There are 9 paintings because mine and the teacher’s are there, too.)

I will get fooled again!


‘Tis better to get out and get rained on than never to have gotten out at all…

A break in the rain seemed worth trying, so I headed for the bluffs above Rainbow Creek. Just as I got to the overlook the sun disappeared and rain surprised me from the northeast. I thought the prevailing winds were south westerly. By the time I got half-way down the sun was back out, and by the time I reached the trailhead I was completely dry again. The big leaf maples were spectacular backlit.

photo of fall maple trees

Leafy sunshine on the Stehekin Valley Road near Harlequin Bride

On the other hand, several days of rain mean several new paintings:

Suze Woolf paintings from the Stehekin Valley

Three paintings adorn the side of my fridge: the fire near Rainbow Bridge, fireweed in the Rainbow Bridge fire area (2010), and Castle Peak from Buehler’s Bluff


Closing public land

A number of people have asked how the government shutdown that has closed the North Cascades and other National Parks is affecting me. In some ways, not so much. I am technically a park volunteer; luckily some of the places I want to paint and walk are on private land. On the other hand, six of my big burned tree paintings are hanging in the Golden West Visitor Center, which is now closed, so no one is seeing them. But at this last weekend’s community cider pressing, I displayed two more of the big trees, as well as the work I’ve done since I arrived three weeks ago. (See my previous post on Community.)

I felt warmly welcomed and appreciated. As a result I’ll be giving a painting lesson at the one-room K-8 school this week. So I’m serving the Stehekin Valley community if not the Park’s visitors. Though to be sure, at least one attendee I spoke with was a Pacific Crest Trail through-hiker turned back by our heavy, early snowfall.

It has also made me wonder about the meaning of “public” land: federal ownership of these jewels of our geography now means we tax-paying “owners” can’t visit them. But many of the trails and pioneer homesteads in this valley existed long before the Park received them, and the idea that something too vast to patrol or maintain is somehow closed to public access seems at least puzzling, if not a bit absurd.

October 4: A sunny day at last

What joy! Snow in the mountains; crisp, clear air in the valley. Now the big leaf maples really are turning, and when they’re backlit, I can see barely-orange larches up on the high ridges. ~10 miles on road, trail and brush; ~1600 feet of elevation gain; one painting, five drawings, 83 photos.

Suze Woolf painting of Lake Chelan

Lake Chelan from the Rainbow Creek trail, watercolor on paper, 10″ x 15″

Community and what I’ve learned about it here

I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that the level of sociability is inversely proportional to the number of people in the society. Stehekin is the smallest town I’ve ever been in for more than a night, but I have been acknowledged, made to feel welcome, introduced to a head-swimming number of people, invited for dinner, waved at on the road…

The story I hear is becoming familiar: “I came for the outdoors, but stayed for the community.” I’m equally sure I can apply the behaviors at home: greet everyone, even if you don’t agree with some aspect of their lives; help others get what they need to do done; and above all, celebrate the place you share.

Suze Woolf display at Harvest Fest, Stehekin WA

Suze and work on display at Harvest Fest, the annual Stehekin cider pressing. This year it was held at the school since the Buckner Orchard is part of the closed national park.

Attitude is everything

After two days of rain I was stir-crazy, so I took this morning’s single patch of blue sky as a good omen and set off for the Lakeshore Trail. Since it doesn’t have a huge elevation gain, I figured it would be a good candidate because it was below the now-3000-foot snow level. And I thought it would not take me that long to get back if it did begin to rain hard.

I made it to the Flick Creek Shelter as it began raining in earnest. I set up inside it and passed a pleasant hour bundled in all my clothing, painting the view out its open southern exposure. The painting looked a good bit like south eastern Alaska instead of the dry side of the North Cascades!  I had to be willing to paint the view to the south even though the better shapes and values were to the north.

Set up inside the Flick Creek Shelter

Set up inside the Flick Creek Shelter

The sun even came out as I was finishing, so I continued on. I heard loons and watched two grebes fishing. But alas the clouds descended again; I hiked the four-some miles back to Stehekin in total downpour. I didn’t see any other painters today – come to think of it, I didn’t see any other people!

Suze Woolf soaked but happy

Soaked but still happy to be out. My Artist Easel Company easel attaches to a standard camera tripod. Paints, paper, board etc. are packed inside the pack in their own heavyweight plastic bag.

I’m so happy I have someplace dry and warm to sleep tonight!