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

Climate Change… and Bears

I went to the first day of the Park’s annual Level 1 Bear Training and got a lot of information not only about bears but about how the warming climate is affecting local flora and fauna. Besides well-known glacier-wasting the typical extents and ranges of many plants are changing, possibly affecting many food webs. There is a great deal of science going on here – more than I have been aware of in other parks.  I learned that last year the Park had its first alpine fire; I will definitely be seeking out charred krumholz to paint.

This may just be my ignorance, but a number of programs are housed at Park Headquarters and there seems to be a lot of interagency and inter-institution collaboration. They are justly proud of bringing the bears back from the edge of endangerment.

I’m afraid bear training didn’t make me feel any less apprehensive—just put more imaginary movies in my mind. The missing data for me are: number of annual visitor-bear encounters versus the number of annual non-bad outcomes per encounter. One has to assume the numbers are somewhere between the ~1 injury or fatality per year since the park began, and the 2 million visitors per year – but where?

It is a new kind of constraint, feeling that it’s unwise to hike alone and sit quietly painting plein air. So mostly I do a quick drawing on my watercolor paper while singing all the verses I can remember to “Roll On, Columbia” and paint it when I get back to the cabin.  So far, four hikes, five paintings ; – )

 

Addendum:

A friend sent a 2012 article that cites Stephen Herero saying 98% of bear encounters where pepper spray was used have positive outcomes for both human and bear… a reassuring statistic though I’d still like to get a sense of the frequency of such encounters.

Internet withdrawal

It takes me about an hour to drive out to Montana Coffee Traders to get enough bandwidth to post. I can make a cell call about 30 minutes from the cabin. I can take 15 minutes to walk up to the Lake MacDonald Lodge to sort basic email over Wi-Fi… But I am finding it harder and harder to be so incommunicado. I revel in the peace but also feel lost and disoriented. It’s not just being in a new place; I’m used to encountering anything new with an overlay of virtual information. It’s one thing to spend a day out in the mountains outside the hive mind; it’s another to live and work in what becomes de-facto isolation. I’m not lonely hiking and painting alone. Loneliness is something different from the absence of communication. I’m sure I’m not the first to comment, but in the 15 years of near-constant connection, I begin to wonder how much I exist absent my cyberspace identity.

Off on Another Adventure

This time I am headed to Glacier National Park to be their June Artist-in-Residence. Following my tradition, here is my car, packed and ready to go:

Packed Car

While I am getting better at getting these trips organized, there is always a last few days of remembering something in the middle of the night—but I still arrive realizing which things I forgot, even when they were on my lists! At least so far: binoculars, my backcountry lunch bag with my favorite Swiss army knife and stash of ibuprofen, self-healing cutting board, and onions.

Besides urban legends and political boats, the Internet lied about the travel time between Seattle and Glacier – it took not 8.5 hours but 10.5, even without stops. Here is what I arrived to:

My hopes for this residency?

  • Close encounters with a new wonderful place and people (and not grizzly bears ; – )
  • Renewed commitment to the natural world
  • Some landscape paintings that bring the genius loci alive (otherwise photos would suffice)
  • Encounters with burned-over forests that bring me not only new source materials but new ways of thinking about or presenting their meaning

The first thing I worked on, besides getting settled, were half-finished paintings I brought from home. The night before I left was my painting group night; despite lack of sleep and pre-trip jitters, I was happy with my starts. Here they are on my current local-rock mantelpiece—a reminder of home:

Mantel with home paintings

Snow at 6600 feet

We had a great hike up to the old Goode Lookout site. Bridge Creek, where we stayed the night before, was beautiful all by itself. The water is incredibly clear  – no glaciers were harmed to make this stream! I always love the challenge of moving water.

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The Stehekin River just below the Bridge Creek confluence

 

By the time we got to the top, weather had begun to move in.

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Johannesburg, Booker (Sahale and Boston in the background) and Buckner

 

I haul myself up Angel’s Landing

Sept 7

I awoke hearing a crunch on the gravel outside my window at 4:40am, and continued sleep was not going to happen. I hiked up famous Angel’s Landing once it was light out – rapidly up the trail section, slowly up the very exposed class two final section. I wondered if my via ferrata gear would work on the chains they have here. If this was Europe, it would be cabled – and while the scrambling is easy (there are steps cut in the sandstone), they have had fatalities. Then I continued up the West Rim trail where I was completely alone within a quarter-mile of the Angel’s Landing turnoff. Two drawings done on the scene became painting sketches back at the house, once I ran town errands and recovered from the mid-day heat (~94 degrees F).

Sunrise on Angel's Landing

Sunrise on Angel’s Landing