Art by Suze Woolf

Contours of a Charred Tree
Works on Torn Paper

By Suze Woolf

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Introduction

I explore and confront climate change in painting, paper-casting, pyrographic drawing, and artist books, sometimes all together. Nature, science, and working in series are my muses. I do a lot of time in the field.

I have watched Washington’s glaciers recede throughout my life. The landscape I took for granted growing up changes with increasing rapidity. A longtime mountaineer, I’ve walked through more and more burned-over areas on favorite access trails—first in the Cascades and then throughout the North American West. As a landscape painter, I started out by painting whole scenes. At some point I realized it was the structured randomness of deep char of especially hot fires that set my visual neurons abuzz. I began to do close-up studies of individual trees. Not long after that, I realized the watercolorist is not bound to a rectangle: a paper substrate can be any shape, including the contour of a burned tree. The portraits became both a metaphor for and an example of our human impact on nature: our predilection for cooking the planet.

From "State of the Forest" by Suze Woolf

Yet for all my fear and grief, I also see an unusual beauty. Wildfire fighters call these standing corpses “totems.” In some ways they are all the same—carbonized, eaten away. And yet each is different—the physics of the fire and the tree’s biological structure create unique sculptures. Char remains iridescent for up to a decade, reflecting local light and color. Each ridge or fissure becomes a topography unto itself.

The COVID-19 pandemic—another kind of ecological disturbance—has given us new appreciation for the need to act globally. It has only slightly slowed anthropogenic warming but at a terrible price for many. It strengthens my resolve to work with scientists towards a healthier future for humans and their environment, and for us to see ourselves as one node in a complex, interrelated web of relationships.


ARTerrain Gallery by Suze Woolf
Contours of a Charred Tree | Works on Torn Paper

Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size.
 

Knotted, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 19”W (2014).

 

 

Knotted

This tree had some issues even before it burned! I saw it on the Purple Pass trail in North Cascades National Park when I was a resident there in 2013.

 

 

Blazed

I was an artist in residence in Zion National Park in 2012. It was while hiking there that I realized that I could tear the paper to match the contours of the tree I was painting. This tree was in a prescribed burn near the Observation Point trail.

Blazed, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 20”W (2017).
Where Glaciers Were, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 13”W (2016).

 

 

Where Glaciers Were

This tree came from the Rey­nolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park when I was a resident there in 2016.

 

 

Goodell Creek Cedar

The Goodell Creek Fire in the North Cascades of Washington required the shutdown of the powerlines from Ross Dam to the city of Seattle. Despite being on the west, wet side of the mountain range, many cedars in the area burned, just like they rot, from the inside out.

Goodell Creek Cedar, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 43”W (2019).
Deep Creek Triplet, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 31”W (2021).

 

 

Deep Creek Triplet

This tree was on a ridge prominence in the Norse Peak Fire in Washington state, not far from Mt. Rainier National Park. It was in part a technical experiment: I drew the tree in software, mounted watercolor paper on a polycarbonate backing, had the outline laser-cut, and then painted the watercolor. The play of shadows on the exhibit wall is one of its strengths.

 

 

Larger than Life

From the Tripod Burn on Tiffany Mountain, in Washington state’s Pasayten Wilderness. I am fascinated by the topography of fire-carved layers of lignin. I found myself reminded of the swoops and swirls of ‘60s acid rock music posters.

Larger than Life, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 28”W (2022).
Mesa Verde Pinon, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 32.5”W (2018).

 

 

Mesa Verde Piñon

 

A burned and twisted piñon not far from the Cliff House dwelling near the Mesa Verde National Park visitor center.

 

 

Carved Out

This tree was in the Tripod Burn on Tiffany Mountain, in Washington state’s Pasayten Wilderness.

Carved Out, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 10”W (2022).
Sandblasted, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 12.25”W (2021).

 

 

Sandblasted

left
 

Twisted

right

 

Both of these trees stood on the top of Carleton Ridge, not far from Missoula, Montana. Exposed to high winds, the cast-up sandy soils abraded the char to an almost marble-like smoothness.

Twisted, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
52”H x 21”W (2021).

 

State of the Forest

State of the Forest, by Suze Woolf
Fabric Installation up to 1,000’ x 1,000’ depending on number of tree sets used (2019).
State of the Forest Installation, Environmental Impact II, Produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C.
Photo courtesy The James Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, August 2019.

Thirty burned tree paintings digitally transferred to fabric in three layers: a printed transparent silk organza, a printed solid layer, and a plain black or white-on-black text layer. The fabric is shaped to fit the contour of the trees, which hang in sets from the ceiling. Many have texts by wildland firefighter and author Lorena Williams on the black layer.

The original paintings are from trees all over western North America from many different forest fires. In this way they represent all fires. By using fabric to represent this grove, I convey that the forests we take as permanent are in fact fragile.

In 2018, ten tree paintings were installed in a downtown Seattle storefront thanks to Shunpike’s Storefronts.

State of the Forest, by Suze Woolf
State of the Forest Installation, Environmental Impact II, Produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C.
Photos by Raymond Ng, at The Bateman Centre, Victoria, British Columbia, September 2021.
State of the Forest, by Suze Woolf
State of the Forest Installation, Environmental Impact II, Produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C. Photos by Raymond Ng, at The Bateman Centre, Victoria, British Columbia, September 2021.
The Magnitude of the Problem, by Suze Woolf
Varnished watercolor on torn paper.
Each of 7 panels is 37”H by 43-39”W (2020).

 

 

The Magnitude of the Problem

My pandemic lockdown project, the largest burned tree I have painted yet, has been shown in a variety of configurations: vertical, horizontal, and in three or four two-row columns, both as original paintings and in a multi-layer, digitally-printed fabric installation, for which Lorena Williams wrote accompanying texts.


About the Artist

Suze WoolfSuze Woolf explores a range of media from watercolor to paper-casting, from artist books to pyrography and installation—sometimes all together. Her background ranges from fine art to computer graphics and interface design.

Her installation State of the Forest, based on 14 years of painting individual burned trees, is currently part of the Environmental Impact Sequel tour from 2019-2023.

She has exhibited throughout Washington state but also in Utah, British Columbia, Maryland, California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Washington, D.C. Her work is in regional public collections as well as many private collections. She has received awards from arts organizations and universities and colleges and has held residencies in Zion, Glacier, Capitol Reef, and North Cascades National Parks as well as the Grand Canyon Trust and art colonies such as the Banff Centre, Vermont Studio Center, Willowtail Springs, Jentel, Playa, and Centrum.

Find more of Suze Woolf’s work at suzewoolf-fineart.com.

 

This is the fourth of 13 contributions to the Lookout: Writing + Art About Wildfires series, in partnership with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word at Oregon State University. The series runs from mid-May through mid-July, 2022, the traditional height of wildfire season in the Western United States.

 
All images by or courtesy Suze Woolf.

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