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

 

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.