Willowtail for the Third Time

I recently completed a third visit to Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve near Mancos, Colorado. (See also Colorado-Utah-Colorado and Willowtail Springs Residency.) It was a very productive time for me: I was able to complete three of my individual portraits of burned trees in relatively few but long and intense days, compared to what it takes me at home.

The cedar on the right is the largest burned tree I’ve done yet; at its base it’s nearly as wide as it’s tall, and presents a raft of new storage and presentation problems to solve : – ).

I did a few hikes in the Lizard Head Wilderness with its first few inches of snow, and managed to start a few small landscapes from those hikes as well. I got together with my collaborator Lorena Willams, who wrote the stories that appear in the “State of the Forest” installation now on tour.

While there, I wrote this short essay on the value of their residency program:

What is the value of an artist residency to an artist?

It is the opportunity to think and work surrounded by peace and beauty — with very little distraction.[1] Like any traveler, being in a new or less familiar place is refreshing and liberating; seeing new sights can literally change a point of view. For an artist, this can result in fixed ideas or long-term directions being altered or upended or in others a renewed commitment to a body of work.

For me, three visits to Willowtail have been primarily the latter. I have two bodies of work relevant to its southwest Colorado environment – an eleven-year series of large paintings of individual burned trees and a three-year series of artist books about bark beetles, using the wood and bark of their target trees as medium. Since these are preoccupations for much of the region, I found not only a personal welcome but professional interest in the work.

What is the impact of the residency on the artist and more widely?

Something I have experienced in every residency is some surprise I could not have predicted. Two years ago, Willowtail received a Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation grant to foster a collaboration. I was paired together with Durango author and wildland firefighter Lorena Williams, enriching and deepening the burned tree body of work. Her stories, together with my paintings, have resulted in several exhibitions not only in traditional art venues, like galleries and museums,[2] but also in downtown storefronts[3] and community centers.[4]

Some 30 of these paintings have been digitally printed on three layers of fabric: a transparent, a solid and a black or black-plus-text layer with Lorena’s stories on half of them. This installation, called “State of the Forest,” is currently touring regional art and science museums around the U.S. and Canada for the next 2.5 years.[5]

Why do you come back to Willowtail?

I’ve already mentioned peace and beauty. The quirky décor, living conscientiously on the land, and facilitation in the local art community are also appreciated. But more importantly, Peggy and Lee Cloy offer something unusual in the artist residency world: deep personal interest. In large programs an artist can feel a bit  like a transfer student in an overcrowded high school. Here the sense of belief and support of the specific individual’s endeavor is appreciative, consistent and tangible.

[1] By my estimate, I am ~200-250% more productive than in my own studio.

[2] Plasteel Gallery, Seattle; Arnica Gallery, Kamloops BC; Lake Country Gallery, Vernon BC; US Botanical Museum, Washington DC; Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner WA; San Juan Islands Museum of Art, Friday Harbor, WA; Kirkland Arts Center, Kirkland WA; Green River College, WA; Seattle City Hall, WA and others.

[3] Shunpike Storefront grant, amazon HQ Republican Street windows, Seattle; summer 2018. See https://storefrontsseattle.com/ near the end of the page.

[4] “Conversations through the Smoke” toured small towns in Idaho as part of a University of Idaho/US Forest Service community fire resiliency campaign. https://www.nrfirescience.org/event/conversations-through-smoke-traveling-art-exhibition

[5] The itinerary is here: https://www.davidjwagnerllc.com/Environmental_Impact-Sequel.html

 

Eating my Vegetables

It began in one of the workshops I’ve been teaching at Gage Academy in Seattle. It’s a big jump to go from learning about the paints to doing a landscape, even from a photo, so I’m always looking for ways to bridge that gap. One day I brought in a few items out of my fridge. I asked each person to pick one, place it on a white sheet of paper and point a small desk lamp at it. Then I gave a demo:

Class kale (674x1024)

Class kale, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 7.5″

There’s something humble and unassuming about some leaves of kale.

I’m fond of saying that often people draw the Platonic “class” of an object instead of the “instance” that is there in front of them.

Or, as fellow vegetable-loving painter/instructor Lisa Goren says, “I always use chard for my teaching. I use it because, unlike flowers, [students] don’t have as fixed an idea of what it looks like in their heads. So I think they look more carefully and are more focused on the task rather than the outcome.”

Chard (1024x759)

Swiss chard, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

Our correspondence about this shared pedagogy made me think hard about why I am finding painting vegetables so liberating.

There are relatively few examples of “Great Vegetable Works from Art History”—whereas try to paint sunflowers and a whole famous field’s worth is glaring at you!

Red Leaf (753x1034)

Red leaf lettuce, watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11

It’s hard to get to over-invested in painting a vegetable—compared to, say, a beautiful landscape you’re sentimental about. Since you don’t have so many hopes and expectations attached to it, you paint more freely and the results are fresh. (Mind you, they still require careful observation!)

Long radishes (1024x767)

Long radishes, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

Or maybe it’s a jolie laide or underdog thing? Even in the foodie world they’re usually not the star of the meal…

Artichokes (1024x757)

Artichokes, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

Perhaps it’s also my own semi-conscious interest in getting people to look at what isn’t conventionally considered “art worthy.”

Plus I get to eat them afterwards… Or at least most of them:

Lungwort Lichen (1024x751)

Pulmonaria lobarium, watercolor on paper, 11″ x15″. Lungwort lichen is a vegetable to the deer and moose that browse on it!

[Note: a number of these small paintings will be in a solo exhibit at the Food Art Collection opening July 14. Rather than traditional framing and glazing–which just didn’t feel right when I hope they end up in people’s kitchens–they are mounted on panels and coated with epoxy–so the spatters from frying up those potatoes can be wiped off!]

 

 

Capitol Reef Residency

During October I had the privilege of living and working inside the smallest – at least in terms of visitation – of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef. This was my third visit to the Park. I stopped in a snowstorm on my way home from a similar residency in Zion National Park in 2012 and in May of 2017 served as the outside juror for the Utah Watercolor Society’s annual plein air week there.

Fall was a wonderful time to be in residence – golden cottonwoods along the Fremont River, temperate days and cool nights, low insect populations and possibly a bit quieter – though every time I was in the Visitor Center it was bustling. Fortunately for the flora and fauna, the preceding drought was easing, but unfortunately for the outdoor painter, there were a lot of wet days. 

Doubleoverthe Reef Lo Res

A gorgeous double-rainbow over historic Fruita, from my studio window — but of course this means it was raining….

Rain comes to the Henrys (1024x7610

Rain Comes to the Henrys Watercolor on paper 11″ x 15″

I spent a lot more time getting to know the east side of the Reef, enjoying extensive views of the country’s longest monocline, the colors of the uplifted layers, the slots that drain the angled spine, all presided over by enough snow in the Henry Mountains east of the Park to be skiable (at least by backcountry skiers’ measures).

My stay wasn’t long enough, so I was a bit frenetic about trying to get everywhere, see everything and produce as much work as I could, at the expense of getting to know staff or the nearby town of Torrey. I have six months to continue the work I began there before presenting a portfolio of choices for the Park’s collection. Here are some of my favorites (all watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″).

 

   

 

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.

Second Lost Twin Lake (751x1024)

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.

Buprestid Katakana 5 (970x1024)

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.

***

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