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

Summing up my GNP residency

I’ve been delayed in rounding out my Glacier National Park residency reporting. For the OCD record:

  • 25 paintings completed while resident (as well as 10 more after I got home, and more to come)
  • 21 hikes of ~215 trail miles and ~40,000 feet of elevation gain (lots but half as much as a good through-hiker!)

As I compile a portfolio of images in fulfillment of my residency requirement, I’m struck by several subjects that influenced what I decided to paint – mostly unconsciously:

  • iconic postcard vistas, and how many of them have burned trees in the foreground (31%)
    curly-bear-mtn-and-burn-760x1024

    Curly Bear Mountain and St Mary Lake, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″

    robert-fire-from-lake-mcdonald-755x1024

    Robert Fire Dog Hair across Lake McDonald, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″

  • Vanishing ice (8% but 43% if you add the next category… and in some sense every mountain view shows the retreat of the glaciers)
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    Iceberg Lake, watercolor on paper, 30″x11″

    grinnell-glacier-cirque-323x1024

    Grinnell Glacier Moraines, watercolor on paper, 11″x 30″

  • Mountain views (35%), my abiding love of alpine scenery
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    The Garden Wall, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″

    morning-at-apgar-lookout-700x1024

    Lake McDonald from Apgar Lookout, watercolor on paper, 15″x22″ (sold)

  • Running water (11%), always a challenge for the plein air and studio painter
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    Baring Creek, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″

    mcdonald-creek-west-bank-754x1024

    McDonald Creek from the west bank, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″

  • Tourism nostalgia (14%), the vintage infrastructure of past ways of experiencing the park – the tour buses, boats and lodges
    desmet-tour-boat-756x1024

    DeSmet Tour Boat, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″

    red-bus-3-1024x761

    Red Bus #3, watercolor on paper, 15″x11″

     

    I learned so much about the place and its natural history. The trouble with all my residencies is that once I have learned to love a new place, then it becomes a part of me that I have to re-visit.

    (I did get more of the work posted on my website, finally!)

 

The End is in Sight

I can’t quite believe I’m on the downslope to leaving. Glacier National Park is a huge place to try to get to know in a short time. It’s takes a certain amount of time, energy and networking to get oriented, poke around enough to find the places that grab me and be productive. I can tell that I’ll be working from some of the small studies I did here once I get home. I’m quite taken with the classic views of the Park peaks with burned-over forests in the foreground, to the extent that I’m almost disappointed if there isn’t a burn somewhere near a vista I want to paint. But I have promised not to do this…

McFarlaneSuzeCartoon (1024x738) (2014_04_02 03_13_31 UTC)

(Thanks Jim ; – )

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.

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