The saddest of ironies

Twelve years ago I began painting portraits of individual burned boles because of my anxiety about the impacts of what is now a climate crisis.

I heard two days ago that one of my burned tree paintings has been removed from the path of a California fire. I hope with all my heart that my purchasers’ home is spared–yet I am so moved that they chose to rescue the work in the face of what must be thousands of concerns.

Blazed, varnished watercolor on torn paper, 52″H x 20″W (2017).
The subject was a tree near Observation Point in Zion National Park.
This painting was #36 of what is now a series of 42.


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.


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.


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


Wrapping Zion

No, not like Christo – more like closing the books on the 2013 Zion Plein Air Invitational. It was so rewarding to be back in that extraordinary environment. I can well believe that visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis thought Frederick Dellenbaugh’s paintings were fantastical, made-up, unreal. I’m delighted to have parted with most of the pieces I painted there and raised a goodly sum for the Park’s youth outreach and art programs. Many of my pictures were bought by local residents: I take it as a sign they feel I’ve captured something of the beauty they walk in every day.

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I also did a number of outline pencil drawings for paintings that I’ve worked on since I got home. You can see that at least part of my heart is still there.

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The world is my studio

I’m completely thrilled to be the recipient of an Artist Trust Grant for Artist Project award. This wonderful Seattle organization funds individual projects, professional development education, and acts as a clearing house for information of all kinds relevant to artists. As one of this year’s recipients, they asked if they could send a photographer to my studio as one of twelve artists for a poster. But I am out in Utah, in Zion National Park’s amazing canyons and slick rock. While I do quite a bit work indoors (it rains a lot at home!), nothing lifts my spirits as much as hard walking in beautiful country. Combining this with painting is as happy as I can be….

Photo of Suze Woolf at Zion National Park's Observation Point

The studio a few days ago: Zion National Park’s Observation Point. I’ve hiked up with my board and paper on the outside of my backpack.

"Fall View from Observation Point" watercolor on paper, 11" x 15"

“Fall View from Observation Point” watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″


…And grateful. I met one of this year’s Zion Artists-in-Residence, Rebecca Fogg; she’s here  in Zion, despite two strokes that have her wheelchair-bound, unable to speak. She is learning to use her non-dominant hand to work. Her devoted partner gave her talk for her. I am moved by her determination to practice her art, inspired by how much it can mean to a life to have that practice. To have the capacity to pursue both physical and professional expression is grace indeed.

Shapes have feelings, too

I’m aware as I begin a composition of emotions that the shapes in my landscape evoke. Even apart from the subject matter (I’ve loved peaks all my life), the mere shape and its placement on a page have a personality and excite a response in the viewer. I’m struggling to articulate this: for example, when I see the peaks of Zion jutting into the sky, I feel an implacable and indomitable force, an all-seeing impassive presence, a kind of aloof authority. “We were here before you were born and we will be here after” — no matter my best geologic imagination fast-forwarding through  eons of change. I’m sure my abstract painting friends are amused by this new light-bulb understanding of mine. I’m learning to look for shapes that have an inherent emotional impact quite apart from whatever they depict.

Suze Woolf watercolor painting from Zion National Par

Dihedral above Many Pools, watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11″ — all those opposing triangles!

Falling in love all over again

After six days of hiking, drawing, photographing, and painting, I’ll confess that once again I’ve fallen hard for that Zion place. The light, the shapes, the colors, the textures… and as a first-time-in-late-fall visitor, the yellow cottonwoods are luminous. It was bittersweet to leave 13 months ago; it won’t be any easier this time.

"From the Kayenta Trail" watercolor on hotpress paper, 11" x 15" - during a recent cold and rainy spell

“From the Kayenta Trail” watercolor on hotpress paper, 11″ x 15″ – during a recent cold and rainy spell

"Late Afternoon, Late Fall' watercolor on paper, 15" x 11" from near the bottom of the Echo Canyon Trail in Zion National Park

“Late Afternoon, Late Fall’ watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11” from near the bottom of the Echo Canyon Trail in Zion National Park

Heading out in the West again

Packed up again and this time heading to Zion National Park for “In the Footsteps of Thomas Moran,” their annual fundraising painting competition.

photo of fully loaded car

My faithful car, loaded and ready to head for Utah

Despite the early snowfall I experienced in Stehekin (see posts for September/October), there was little left on the inland heights of eastern Oregon, Idaho and Utah. In the Puget Sound basin we’ve experienced an unusual run of pea-soup fog, so it was a relief to rise up over the coastal ranges into full late fall sunshine. The cottonwoods, aspen, willows have turned into brilliant yellows, golds and oranges. I saw pumpkins, some still in their fields, some in harvested piles. In both the eastern Cascades Mountains and the high plateaus of eastern Oregon, sub-alpine larches presented a color span of lime to orange, vivid against their dark green evergreen neighbors. It is a glorious time to be on a long drive in the West.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho. All those shapes made me laugh when I saw them.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho. All those shapes made me laugh when I saw them.

It’s true there is beauty, often unexpected, everywhere. Someone who paints industrial maritime scenes surely knows that! But I’m reminded each time I cross so many parts Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona –  those thinly-populated, high, semi-arid vast vistas of botany and geology – of my deep love of these landscapes. Is it a kind of misanthropy, I value places without people in them? Or that I can see so much farther than in any city or forest? As a painter, I love distance because it smears out the details I tend to get too mired in.

Willard Bay, near Brigham City, Utah

Willard Bay, near Brigham City, Utah