The saddest of ironies

Twelve years ago I began painting portraits of individual burned boles because of my anxiety about the impacts of what is now a climate crisis.

I heard two days ago that one of my burned tree paintings has been removed from the path of a California fire. I hope with all my heart that my purchasers’ home is spared–yet I am so moved that they chose to rescue the work in the face of what must be thousands of concerns.

Blazed, varnished watercolor on torn paper, 52″H x 20″W (2017).
The subject was a tree near Observation Point in Zion National Park.
This painting was #36 of what is now a series of 42.


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.


Wrapping Zion

No, not like Christo – more like closing the books on the 2013 Zion Plein Air Invitational. It was so rewarding to be back in that extraordinary environment. I can well believe that visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis thought Frederick Dellenbaugh’s paintings were fantastical, made-up, unreal. I’m delighted to have parted with most of the pieces I painted there and raised a goodly sum for the Park’s youth outreach and art programs. Many of my pictures were bought by local residents: I take it as a sign they feel I’ve captured something of the beauty they walk in every day.

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I also did a number of outline pencil drawings for paintings that I’ve worked on since I got home. You can see that at least part of my heart is still there.

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The world is my studio

I’m completely thrilled to be the recipient of an Artist Trust Grant for Artist Project award. This wonderful Seattle organization funds individual projects, professional development education, and acts as a clearing house for information of all kinds relevant to artists. As one of this year’s recipients, they asked if they could send a photographer to my studio as one of twelve artists for a poster. But I am out in Utah, in Zion National Park’s amazing canyons and slick rock. While I do quite a bit work indoors (it rains a lot at home!), nothing lifts my spirits as much as hard walking in beautiful country. Combining this with painting is as happy as I can be….

Photo of Suze Woolf at Zion National Park's Observation Point

The studio a few days ago: Zion National Park’s Observation Point. I’ve hiked up with my board and paper on the outside of my backpack.

"Fall View from Observation Point" watercolor on paper, 11" x 15"

“Fall View from Observation Point” watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″


…And grateful. I met one of this year’s Zion Artists-in-Residence, Rebecca Fogg; she’s here  in Zion, despite two strokes that have her wheelchair-bound, unable to speak. She is learning to use her non-dominant hand to work. Her devoted partner gave her talk for her. I am moved by her determination to practice her art, inspired by how much it can mean to a life to have that practice. To have the capacity to pursue both physical and professional expression is grace indeed.

Shapes have feelings, too

I’m aware as I begin a composition of emotions that the shapes in my landscape evoke. Even apart from the subject matter (I’ve loved peaks all my life), the mere shape and its placement on a page have a personality and excite a response in the viewer. I’m struggling to articulate this: for example, when I see the peaks of Zion jutting into the sky, I feel an implacable and indomitable force, an all-seeing impassive presence, a kind of aloof authority. “We were here before you were born and we will be here after” — no matter my best geologic imagination fast-forwarding through  eons of change. I’m sure my abstract painting friends are amused by this new light-bulb understanding of mine. I’m learning to look for shapes that have an inherent emotional impact quite apart from whatever they depict.

Suze Woolf watercolor painting from Zion National Par

Dihedral above Many Pools, watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11″ — all those opposing triangles!

Falling in love all over again

After six days of hiking, drawing, photographing, and painting, I’ll confess that once again I’ve fallen hard for that Zion place. The light, the shapes, the colors, the textures… and as a first-time-in-late-fall visitor, the yellow cottonwoods are luminous. It was bittersweet to leave 13 months ago; it won’t be any easier this time.

"From the Kayenta Trail" watercolor on hotpress paper, 11" x 15" - during a recent cold and rainy spell

“From the Kayenta Trail” watercolor on hotpress paper, 11″ x 15″ – during a recent cold and rainy spell

"Late Afternoon, Late Fall' watercolor on paper, 15" x 11" from near the bottom of the Echo Canyon Trail in Zion National Park

“Late Afternoon, Late Fall’ watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11” from near the bottom of the Echo Canyon Trail in Zion National Park

Heading out in the West again

Packed up again and this time heading to Zion National Park for “In the Footsteps of Thomas Moran,” their annual fundraising painting competition.

photo of fully loaded car

My faithful car, loaded and ready to head for Utah

Despite the early snowfall I experienced in Stehekin (see posts for September/October), there was little left on the inland heights of eastern Oregon, Idaho and Utah. In the Puget Sound basin we’ve experienced an unusual run of pea-soup fog, so it was a relief to rise up over the coastal ranges into full late fall sunshine. The cottonwoods, aspen, willows have turned into brilliant yellows, golds and oranges. I saw pumpkins, some still in their fields, some in harvested piles. In both the eastern Cascades Mountains and the high plateaus of eastern Oregon, sub-alpine larches presented a color span of lime to orange, vivid against their dark green evergreen neighbors. It is a glorious time to be on a long drive in the West.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho. All those shapes made me laugh when I saw them.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho. All those shapes made me laugh when I saw them.

It’s true there is beauty, often unexpected, everywhere. Someone who paints industrial maritime scenes surely knows that! But I’m reminded each time I cross so many parts Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona –  those thinly-populated, high, semi-arid vast vistas of botany and geology – of my deep love of these landscapes. Is it a kind of misanthropy, I value places without people in them? Or that I can see so much farther than in any city or forest? As a painter, I love distance because it smears out the details I tend to get too mired in.

Willard Bay, near Brigham City, Utah

Willard Bay, near Brigham City, Utah

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.

Tying up loose ends and looking forward

Tomorrow I will pick up Sunset Ranch (Large) from the framer and get it ready to ship to Zion National Park. It’s the work they chose to keep in partial fulfillment of my residency there. I painted it after I got home from a smaller version that I did in the Park.

It’s a good choice — vast like the vistas from the Kolob Terrace Road; it’s where I realized I could use a “live” or “shaped” edge on a landscape painting; and it depicts a parcel of land the Park acquired from a grandfathered in-holding while I was in residence. Feels good!

Last week I submitted my application for residencies on the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Oh, how my fingers are crossed!

Suze Woolf painting of the Sunset Ranch area of Zion National Park

Sunset Ranch, watercolor on shaped paper, 11 x 30


Suze Woolf painting of Sunset Ranch area in Zion National Park

Sunset Ranch (Large), watercolor on shaped paper, 12 x 51.5