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

 

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Midpoint

I’ve been here two weeks now. Because I have to drive into town to get sufficient bandwidth to post photos, my blogging is confined to grocery/laundry trips to Columbia Falls.

I have gotten oriented to the Lake McDonald valley area, done seven hikes and produced 13 paintings. Most are too tight — it’s clear to me I’m not yet fully at ease in the environment. (Forgive the low photo quality; I didn’t bring that equipment with me.)

Suze Woolf watercolor painting

Falls above Avalanche Lake

A theme is emerging – not surprisingly, my new knowledge of the Park’s centennial history, combined with the number of visitors I see on the roads, trails and in the lodge, and walking through burned-over areas suggests juxtaposing iconic tourist views with burned forests in the foreground. This is change writ large. In a sense, I’m returning to my Banff Centre work, back to the entire landscape and not individual burned trees.

Suze Woolf watercolor painting

Robert Fire Panorama

Suze Woolf watercolor painting

Up St Mary Valley (Reynolds Creek Fire)

You would think I would know by now, but I’m still surprised that themes emerge as a result of walking in nature. It’s almost like I need so many miles for reflective thinking – even though while walking I’m not aware of “deep thoughts,” just “find the right aerobic pace,” “is there a bear around the next corner,” “how much farther is it,” and “this is just gorgeous..”. If anyone ever asks me about artist blocks, I’ll just tell them to start walking.

 

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

Tenacity

I was listening to a Digital Fabrication Residency talk by Laura Splan about her biologically-inspired bodies of work incorporating digital technologies such as machine embroidery, laser cutting, 3D-printing etc. She used the word tenacity to describe that state of exciting and anxious exploration of what the tools can do on a deadline. “Failure isn’t an option but it’s also an expectation.” This statement gongs through my head as I tediously adjust my 52 Inkscape vector drawings for probably twentieth time. She also says to pace yourself, know at what point you have to accept what you can accomplish and when you have make compromises with your original vision. Not bad advice in any endeavor ; – )

Here are some interim points along my own project path. The vision is two artist books, Siamese-twinned at the spines, one small (5″ x 12″) and one large (16″ x 12″). The pages and covers will eventually cut from clear acrylic, though right now I am working with a test run on cardboard. LED lights in the conjoined spine will fluoresce light out to the edges of the acrylic sheets. The object(s) will either sit on a table as separate books or be wall-mounted vertically together.

The vision has taken me into some familiar territory: using vector software to interpolate one shape to another over a series of steps so that the “slices” or “pages” describe an overall volume. (I enjoy the multiple meanings of “volume” –dimensional form and particular book.) Those shapes are then laser cut.

Photo of Laser-cut cardboard dummy of the smaller book

Laser-cut cardboard dummy of the smaller book.

Photo of laser-cut cardboard book dummy

Laser-cut cardboard dummy of the larger book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of linen thread and cardboard test pages

Here I’m testing my binding method on a cardboard dummy of the small book’s shaped pages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But some of the skills are outside my comfort zone. I’ve learned not only to design and animate, but also program the firmware on my BlinkyTape strip of 60 LEDs. I had some help soldering on an additional 60 LEDs (thanks Mark!). After traveling down many dead-ends it was a moment of great triumph when they all lit up in the pattern I had created. (Thanks, Maarten and Mets!)

Photo of BlinkyTape soldered to NeoPixel LED strip

This image shows two strips of LEDs soldered together and running a subtle animation of blue-to-green-to-lighter blue and back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have created the design for a cast acrylic part to hold the LEDs in the spine in Fusion360 but don’t dare get it printed or milled until the book is bound and I know its exact measurements. (Thanks, Erik and Kari!)

A recent rendering of the custom part for holding the LEDs butting the pages up them.

A recent rendering of the custom part for holding the LEDs and butting the pages up them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It feels as if the project will never get finished. So many pieces to fit together, so much time spent learning. One step forward for every two steps back… And what if it isn’t cool?!? Not only does it take tenacity and persistence, but faith that the end result will be worth seeing.

A Stay-at-Home Residency

Usually I blog when I head out on the road, but I wanted to share a stationary experience. I’m in the midst of an online residency — we have fuze lectures and conference calls, do tutorials, work up files for samples and, hopefully, create a finished project in a four-week period. The theme is digital fabrication: software-driven laser-cutting, 3D printing, CNC milling and routing, textile printing, digital embroidery and so forth, offered by Digital Fabrication Residency of Easton, Maryland. (Of course, being online, location is irrelevant.) Kari and Erik are incredibly knowledgeable and generous with their time and learning.

It’s an opportunity for me to unite my dormant inner geek with my artistic practice. While I still think of myself primarily as a painter, artist books have become another important medium. They offer dimension, intimacy, proceed through time, carry a lot of cultural baggage, and can exist somewhere other than on a wall.

I had already been exploring laser cutting as a means to make rigid pages for my rockbound books, such as Snowline and Canyon:

Rockbound Book: Snowline. Sliced snowflake obsidian covers, stiff leaf bound with viscose fabric to laser-cut mat board pages; CNC-routed wooden case.

Rockbound Book: Snowline. Sliced snowflake obsidian covers, stiff leaf bound with viscose fabric to laser-cut mat board pages; CNC-routed wooden case.

Photo of Suze Woolf artist book

Rockbound Book: Canyon. Sliced chert stiff-leaf-bound to laser-cut matboard pages with viscose fabric. CNC-routed wooden case.

Now I am learning to visualize and execute an additional variety of processes.

The books have been evolving. They began with re-use of original paintings through reproductions. Somewhere in the first ten or so, I realized that matching the book’s form and materials to the painted subject matter was at least as exciting as the paintings-as-pages. More recent examples these books not only don’t need text, they don’t even need images. The form and the materials *are* the narrative!

Photo of Suze Woolf artist book

Elephant Canyon Volume. Sandstone covers, laser-cut mat board pages, strung on elastic cords. The book “opens” by pulling up the top cover.

The residency is helping me see that a subtext (so to speak) of my preoccupation with the natural world is melding machine techniques with organic forms and materials. To me, if there’s no sense of nature, the artist’s hand, or an inviting surface in the end result I’ve failed. So I’m thrilled on many levels with this residency, and it follows a common artistic development:

  1. learning new techniques…
  2. doing the old stuff in new ways…
  3. uncovering latent themes…
  4. generating new ideas, seeing new ways to do new things.

I’ll be excited to share images of the results when they’re finished.