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

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.

A long time learning

Apologies for the lengthy silence. There are several reasons – I’ve used my blog mostly to describe my Artist-in-Residence voyages and explorations, and I’ve been at home for the last 8 months. And the most recent residency, at Zion National Park, was such an apex of personal and artistic experience that everything else has felt un-newsworthy.

However I have recently had a long exploration come to a fruition worth sharing. In 2011 I heard Simon Starling talk at the Banff Centre. A high-wattage light bulb went off for me then that I have been thinking about ever since: how can the creative process be as much of the meaning as the resulting artifact? That is, how you make something can be as important as the appearance of what you made. While still at that Banff residency, and with some debt to Etsuko Ichikawa, this took me down the path of drawing with wood burning tools and soldering irons.

Suze's Piece Group Show

Another version of What the Fire Wrote – now titled Book of Fire

I also began to wonder about paper as one of many wood products, and how to might it lend meaning to representations of burned trees. I’ve been painting and drawing burned trees for more than five years; I have gradually come to realize that it’s the charred, fire-scarred, semi-regular, chunked leftovers that excite my visual neurons the most, and I have increasingly focused in on those patterns in my paintings. Fire-scarring is my landscape.

A portion of a Suze Woolf painting, Partial Scar

A portion of Partial Scar

A portion of a Suze Woolf painting  The Topography of Fire

A portion of The Topography of Fire

A portion of Northgate Casualty

A portion of Northgate Casualty

Somewhere along this fascination I realized I wanted to make dimensional casts of these patterns. In 2012 I took a class on plaster molds from the late Susan Balshor. Each iteration I learned something more about what worked and what didn’t (I learned you can’t, for example, pour india ink into the paper pulp and except to pull it out of a plaster mold intact. I didn’t dare use strengthening additives like matte medium or methyl cellulose, as recommended by the experts at  Carriage House Paper, for fear it would stick to the detailed plaster molds. I gained patience waiting until the pulp is really dry and beginning to shrink away from the sides. Sometimes my pulp was too thick and wouldn’t dry, or too thin, and too fragile…)

Then I got some help with silicon molds (thanks Mark Walker), and the learning curve began all over again. It was great being able to peel back the mold from deep undercuts and out of small cracks. The original didn’t crumble to pieces while being extricated from the mold. But my paper pulp never dried. I made it thinner and added lots of methyl cellulose, less afraid of the pulp adhering to the slippery silicon molds. I found the “Drying” cycle on my home oven, intended for making fruit leathers. I learned that 140 degrees scorches the paper but 10-12 hours at 120 degrees with the convection fan going and the door open worked quite well.

Here at last, then, two years’ worth of learning, artifacts of a strange beauty and a process related to their meaning.

Assemblage by Suze Woolf

Obverse: Paper casts, pyrography on shaped paper and watercolor on paper, 32 x 22

Assemblage by Suze Woolf

Inverse: Watercolor on shaped paper, paper casts, 32 x 11

Quilting Zion

I came home from Zion with (17) 11″x11″ square paintings of the fractal landscape I found right at my feet. I called them “The Rock Textures.” That is, on a day when I wasn’t satisfied with a landscape painting, I cast about for something else to do. I went from the macro to the micro. Then I began to think of the squares as a kind of quilt, a fading patchwork of my memories of the colors and textures.Inspired by an exhibit I saw when I went to Southern Utah University to give a talk abo

Suze Woolf painting of Zion rock textures

Zion Quilt, 35 x 35, watercolor on paper, assembled from 12 rock texture paintings

ut the residency, I’ve also gone to friend Nancy Cluts, a quilting artist. Together, back and forth, we’re collaborating on a fabric quilt of same. She’s working on the interstices between the rock squares. We’ve talked about how water shapes all the rocks you see in Zion. I love the paradox of something soft and warm representing cold, hard stone. I can hardly wait to see the next iteration.

An update, May 2013:

Nancy continues to work on fabric versions, but I decided to experiment with a paper version. Thanks to the experts at Dry Goods Design, I used 2 layers of a non-woven viscose intended for pattern-making. I wanted to make a kind of gridded window mat to act as a frame for 9 of the paintings. After a number of tests on small squares and much deliberation, I decided to add color. It took watercolor paint beautifully, still transparent enough that the covered edges of the paintings showed through. Then I became worried the pattern paper would not be stiff enough to keep from bowing from the thicker watercolor paper.

So I soaked it in Golden’s GAC 400 diluted with glazing medium (thanks, Barbara DePirro) and added another 2 layers to the inside of the sandwich. I traced the locations of the painting squares and trimmed out the windows in the top layer, then cut slits in the back layers so I would be able to insert the paintings into their “pockets”.

This is really where my trouble began, because the back layers were now too stiff to go through my home sewing machine and the slits gaped open and caught on anything nearby. Luckily, Nancy rescued me with her long-arm quilting machine, and I discovered heat-reversible Framer’s Tape II for closing the slits. I then made a edge binding out of unpainted “fabric” and considered it good enough.  It won an award in a local competition.

An assembly of square paintngs on paper by Suze Woolf

Rock texture paintings assembled in a paper quilt

I think I’ll be doing this again, having learned these lessons:

  • Don’t use fabric stiffener until after it’s put together
  • Don’t cut into the pockets until after it’s put together
  • Review how to make a corner on a bound edge before binding the edge 😉
  • I will consider using lightweight fusible interfacing to keep the top layer stable, with luck, still transparent enough to see the edge of the paintings underneath.

Leaving Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion (Psalms 137:1 and Bob Marley 😉

Only one more day open to hike and paint in this incredible environment. Then I will spend a day packing and cleaning the Grotto House for its next inhabitants.  I gave my  talk at Southern Utah University in Cedar City last night, and will speak at Zion Lodge in the Park tonight. Here is my slide deck:

Suze Woolf Zion Artist in Residence, October 2012

Exploding Views

If I really work at it I can make a scene fit my sheet – really I can. The board in my little plein air kit (gator foam covered with adhesive plastic) fits a quarter-size watercolor sheet (11 x 15). As a consequence that’s the size I generally do outdoors, even when I all I do is a drawing on the sheet, and paint it later. But here in Zion Canyon, the views are so expansive I can rarely contain the scene on a sheet of that proportion – it demands to be wider or taller than “normal”. Over and over I end up continuing the drawing onto a second and even third sheet.

Two days ago while hiking up Observation Point I started thinking about shaped sheets. One of the beauties of work on paper is that one is surely not bound to a rectangle.  This is looking down on the canyon floor, Mt. Moroni, one of the Patriarchs, and the top of Angel’s Landing,

Painting of Zion Canyon

Shaped-sheet painting “Observing Zion” ~30″ x 11″, watercolor on paper

Further update:  similar viewpoint to Maynard Dixon’s painting of Angel’s Landing and the Great White Throne (a double-quarter-sheet diptych, 15 x 22).

Painting of Great White Throne, Angels Landing, Zion National Park

My version of the Great White Throne and Angels Landing, similar to Maynard Dixon’s

The newest rock texture, from my day of painted desert hiking on the southwest side of the park.

Painting of gypsum, limestone and shale in Zion National Park

Gypsum and shale in Scroggins Wash, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 11″

And another update: a better tarantula photo (second sighting).

Photo of tarantula in Zion National Park

About two-thirds the size of my hand.