Playa Summer Lake

As part of the climate-change Surge exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Art, artist-scientist teams were invited to visit Playa art colony on the edge of the Great Basin, in south central Oregon. It’s the northern edge of the country so well described in one of my favorite of John McPhee’s geology works, Basin and Range.

Summer Lake is a shallow lake that in this Anthropocene warmer age goes almost dry in the summer, leaving behind a vast, flat playa of white mud in various stages of drying and cracking. West of Playa’s collection of cabins, studios and lodge, a volcanic uplift called the Winter Rim rises nearly 3000 feet above the lake.

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“Skate skiing” on the playa

I spent a number of days exploring this landscape. Subject to a severe bark beetle outbreak around 2002-2003, much of the nearby forest burned not long thereafter. I even found examples of trees with both beetle galleries and char, neatly combining two of my most extensive bodies of work: painted portraits of individual burned trees and artist books incorporating complex galleries of bark beetles.

Burned and chewed

Both burned and chewed

The epidemic outbreak of bark beetles is the subject of the 9 artist books on display in the Surge exhibit; my project while at Playa was to complete an explanatory video to accompany the exhibit.

One problem with artist books on exhibit is they sit in a case and viewers can’t experience them directly (and given that they are unique and sometimes fragile, it’s appropriate). So I wanted to offer a way for viewers to understand what they were seeing, my motivations and processes and some of the science underlying the visual experience. You can see the 8.5 minute video here.

booksaboutbarkbeetles

As is my habit wherever I am, I also painted small landscapes, trying to capture some of the sense of the sky and playa, which I later made into a small book that I sent back to them.

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Playa 6, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

I was deeply honored that entomology professor Dr. Diana Six came from the University of Montana to spend time on the project with me. My understanding of the issues and her work with them grew exponentially during our time together. Playa’s blog, Edge Effects, published a short article about us here.

July was predictably hot – and perhaps equally predictably, the forest that Dr. Six and I tromped through erupted with the Watson Creek Fire in the Fremont National Forest not long after we left.

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Colorado-Utah-Colorado

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.

 

Jentel Sojourn

Packed for departure

Once again, the car is packed and ready to drive 1000 miles.

In August-September I was among the fortunate recipients of a spot at the Jentel Foundation’s artist residency in north central Wyoming. There is always something that surprises me in every residency I attend – the pleasure of writers reading works-in-progress at Vermont Studio Center; extraordinary modern classical music at The Banff Centre, and so on. Here, I didn’t expect to find pockets of the British Empire among the sage hills of the Big Horn Mountains. In the 19th century a number of English second/third/fourth sons left the mother country and bought cattle ranches. The Big Horn polo club was established in 1898. One local family married back into the Queen’s retinue, so on her 1984 visit, she stopped in Sheridan, community of ~17,000 in north central Wyoming.

My other discovery was the banded-gneiss hard-rock core of the Big Horn Mountains. It’s 3 billion years old – two-thirds the age of the planet – and a billion years older than the Vishnu schists at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The cirques near the divide offer massive faces. Besides rock glacier obstacles to easy hiking (in some cases I made less than a mile an hour), its high elevation (for West-Coaster used to sea-level), this age alone seems worthy of respect.

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Second Lost Twin Lake (watercolor on paper, 15″x 11″)

My four fellow visual artists and two writers were good company when I wasn’t off working or walking. The studio spaces are large and cool – important when you’re there in the hot summer months; in our case we also endured many days of thick smoke from Montana and Canada wildfires. I pursued my usual strategy of hiking a day, drawing and painting on location, then “resting” by painting or book-binding all day.

Suze in Jentel studio (2)

In my Jentel studio (Steve Price photo)

I worked very hard on a beetle book inspired by beautiful slabs of Alaska yellow cedar bored by Buprestid beetles. But after the 80 hours or so it took to finish my interior pages – I just didn’t think they were commensurate with the beauty of the wood. After creating the files to get mat board laser-cut, tracing the beetle galleries I’d seen in the 1988 Lost Fire area of the Big Horns, tea-dying 22 pieces of fragile antique rice paper (with a pattern that looks a bit like wood grain), applying Scotch 568 adhesive, gluing the rice paper to the mat board and dissolving the adhesive in the gallery areas, using a wood-burning tool to outline the galleries… It was very depressing. It took several weeks before I could face scraping off the rice paper and starting over.

Vol. XIII

Bark beetle book Volume XIII, page binding in progress. Maybe Thirteen is jinxed?

In the meantime, because I was in Wyoming surrounded by cowboy culture, and because I’d visited Kings Saddlery on our weekly forays into Sheridan, it occurred to me to try making the pages out of debossed leather. As usual in my book projects, this required learning about processes and skills entirely new to me, and multiple tests of methods.

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Front cover, Buprestid Kanakata (Cedar, leather, linen thread; 9″ x 7″ x 4″)

Buprestid Katakana 6 (1024x602)

Bottom edge

Buprestid Katakana 2 (1024x785)

Last page

All this effort reminds me that the more I follow the many paths my obsessions take me, the closer I think artwork is to science and engineering. I wish all these years I’d been keeping a lab book – preferably searchable – of all the tests of materials and methods I’ve made. It would be easier than pawing through my boxes and boxes of samples with barely readable notes scratched on them.

 

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.