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.

Burned and chewed

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.

booksaboutbarkbeetles

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.

Playa6 (1024x743)

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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Willowtail Springs Residency

I have spent the last 13 days in southwest Colorado, near Mancos, at Willowtail Springs – a charming, eclectic, idiosyncratic set of high-end cabins near the La Plata Mountains and Mesa Verde, founded by Lee and Peggy Melyssa Cloy. Their off-the-beaten-path venue is both a commercial B&B (with fresh eggs and wonderful bread!) and an artist retreat with an avowed goal of “integrating the arts and sciences.”

On the journey here, I found myself “time traveling:” when I crested high passes it was almost winter but, depending on its elevation, descent to the next valley brought me backward in time to anywhere from late summer to early fall to solidly autumn. I saw aspen, cottonwoods, willows, tamarisks and oak thickets still in full color and ones now bare to the last leaf.

For this time of year I brought clothes for both heat and snow. For example, I’ve got four tiers of long underwear – extra light, light, medium heavy and heavy. Ditto pile sweaters, gloves and rain gear. Most of the time, no foul-weather gear needed – but the last two days I’ve worn the medium heavyweight as snow is only a thousand feet above us.

In the higher places especially I saw inescapable evidence of our warming climate: complete beetle kill on the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass (linked article is over a year old; I saw not a single living tree at the same location). Hiking in the La Platas offered vistas of rock glaciers and old lateral and terminal moraines, glacier-smoothed and grooved roches moutonnees, but of course, no glaciers.

My stints in other places almost always follow a pattern: I wander around getting to know a place by painting its landscapes. Once I’ve exorcised “the pretty stuff,” I can begin to focus on the underlying issues and meanings. This visit is no exception—though with an initial week’s vacation hiking spent around southeast Utah on the way here, it’s taken me even longer to settle down.

I had another goal of a “from-life”-painting-a-day, practicing for the Zion Plein Air Invitational. This wall shows my progress:

Watercolor paintings by Suze Woolf near Mancos Colorado
Snapshot of my painting-a-day at Willowtail – the good, the bad and the so-so.
Top Row, left to right: The Pond 1; The Pond 2; Upended truck bed (“Marfa North”); Kiva at Balcony House, Mesa Verde; Hesperus mountain from the Sharktooth trail. Row 2: Below the Pond; Pond 3; Far View Doorways, Mesa Verde;
Sleeping Ute Mountain from Park Point; The Pond in the Rain.
Row 3: The Hill; Prater Ridge Rim; Balcony House, Mesa Verde;
Shiprock from Park Point

With bad weather, I had enough studio time to almost complete another burned tree: untitled yet, this totem (as wildland firefighters call the still-standing carved trunks) is from the 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park.

Suze Woolf watercolor painting of a burned tree
Untitled, Watercolor on torn paper, 52″H by 11.5″W

I have had wonderful interactions with Lee and Peggy, visitors, donors and avid arts-interested people in the area. It was deeply gratifying to hear that my burned tree paintings and my rock-bound artist books inspire them, and I’m looking forward to more exchanges in the future. Willowtail residents will be the focus of an exhibit at the lively Durango Arts Center in 2017.

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I am deeply grateful to the Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation for partial support of my residency at Willowtail Springs.

 

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

Elevation-dependent Warming – and Alpine Fires

It may be safe to assume that no one who works in Glacier National Park denies global warming. Proof of change is so overwhelming even the casual visitor can see it. It somehow seems more intense here – though perhaps it is just more visible. But from my interview with Dan Fagre, scientists working in the Park have confirmed a greater rate of change the higher in elevation you go, with profound implications for the species the Park is sworn to protect.

This week I saw my first alpine-zone burn: small and once-ancient, twisted, krummholz fir trees in vertical stripes running up steep meadows on the way to Siyeh Pass. Even the shrubby heathers, kinnikinicks and creeping junipers remain as blackened runners. Sooner or later these will get added to my individual burned tree series.

Burned Krummholz

 

Driving

October 25

One of the hazards of this area is the sharp Kaibab limestone rocks on the back roads. I fear for my tires. I heard from the owner of Willow Canyon (the oh-so welcoming espresso stand/bookstore/gear emporium in Kanab UT) that the GC backcountry rangers assume 2 flats within 10,000 miles, and 4 by 20,000. (I might have the numbers wrong but you get the idea.) With only one spare I was apprehensive on every drive. So there were a number of places where I gave up and turned around.

But I made it to the Triple Alcove, East Rim and some of the Buck Farm Wash overlooks. It was an emotional moment to stand above the places I’d been in 2010 and look down on The River. Once  through a cleft I saw a raft working its way downstream and I wondered if they could distinguish a watcher on the rim.

Photograph of Suze Woolf painting of the Grand Canyon

Looking south from Buck Farm Wash, watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11″ (and already sold ; – )

And in the Folly-of-Man category I saw the remnant enormous eye-bolts used in preliminary tests for the Marble Canyon dam that was, thankfully, never built. This was the battle that brought David Brower to national prominence (cf. Encounters with the Archdruid). I hope that we will do as well with the Trust’s issues of our day – grazing, public lands policy, threats to the watershed, and alas, many others.

The Wave and Beyond

October 24

My hosts included me on a special-permit trip into the famous Wave formation on North Coyote Buttes. So I made my pilgrimage to that celebrated spot in the company of 3 botanists on a mapping/collecting mission. Normally it requires a reservation long in advance or a win in the previous day’s lottery to be one of the 20 people allowed in daily.

It is indeed a world-class spot—but there are so many spots even in the immediate vicinity. From The Wave we climbed up to the top of the butte to view “The Alcove,” – a wind-scooped, semi-circular, light-bounced, fluted cave with its own resident sand dune; then we went along to “Melody Arch,” – really two arches with a picture window out to the north-east. Along the way we traversed ponds full of primitive life, dried waterpockets with oceans of tiny moki marbles (spherical ironstone concretions), gnarled weathered sandstone looking like crumpled paper, and finally a short, purple, slot canyon exit.

A long day: as near as I can tell, botany is as good a rationale for wandering around looking at stuff as geology or painting ; – )

The three botanists wayfinding across Coyote Buttes

The three botanists wayfinding across Coyote Buttes

Portrait of Suze Woolf in Utah canyon, "The Wave"

The usual Wave photo

Trilobite descendent? About 1/2 to 1-inch long...

Trilobite descendent? About 1/2 to 1-inch long…

Sand Cove Slot - a short canyon in the wash below the Wave

Sand Cove Slot – a short canyon in the wash below the Wave, watercolor on paper 11″ x 15″