A fascinating exhibit is on view at Well Street Art Gallery in Fairbanks this month. Betula Neoalaskana: Celebrating One Tree includes a number of art works of all kinds made from a single birch tree from the boreal forest here, and more than a dozen artists' "books"made from parts of other birches in the area.
The One Tree idea originated in Cheshire, England in 1998, when a community of artists and artisans made an astonishing variety of products from artwork to furniture, all from a single local oak. Jan Dawe of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, a longtime admirer of Alaska Paper Birch (Betula neoalaskana), started a project of the same sort with a single birch felled at Cache Creek in 2009. OneTree Alaska has grown to include art, science and education, and projects in many local schools, as well as the works in the current exhibit at Well Street.
The handmade artists' books portion of the show, art works of all kinds using serial imagery and made from parts of seventeen other trees recently felled near Fairbanks, was inspired and organized by my friend and fellow Fairbanks artist Margo Klass. Margo's well known artist books and assemblages have been shown in galleries and museums for many years, the last half dozen in solo and group exhibitions throughout Alaska, and she has taught classes regularly in bookbinding and related techniques here and throughout the country (see margoklass.com).
Chapters in Birchbark, Forty Pages at a Time is my personal contribution to the exhibition. As I say in my brief statement for the show, birches and the boreal forest have been my trademark images for more than three decades, and I have made hundreds of paintings and drawings and prints of individual birch trees, but I have only made a handful of images from the bark of the trees themselves.
Chapters in Birchbark is made from a large piece of bark from a birch identified by the scientists who are studying the trees--which had been felled for other purposes--as NR7 (Nenana Ridge 7). Jan Dawe has told me that NR7 was the second oldest of the trees on the site, based on coring and counting of its growth rings, and quite possibly one of the oldest birches in Alaska. It is very, very old for a birch tree, predating the U.S. Civil War by a couple of decades. I have never worked with bark as old and thick as the piece from which this artwork is made--a strip almost 4 feet high and more than two feet wide, which curled almost immediately after peeling into a very tight, strong, 6-inch diameter roll.
As in previous pieces of this sort I have made, I painstakingly unrolled this bark and forced it flat again by attaching it to a sturdy wooden backing with a patterned arrangement of nails. I then added cutout pieces from the same piece of bark, or cut away layers of the surface, to create the images.
In the same exhibition is another artists' book that Margo Klass and I made in honor of our dear, late friend Barry McWayne. A close friend of mine for more than 30 years, with whom I had worked, traveled, and celebrated many life events, Barry was one of Alaska's best and most widely admired artist photographers when he died unexpectedly last summer. He and Margo and I had been working for almost two years toward an exhibition of our artwork, all about birches, which will open this summer at the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska, and travel to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau this fall and Well Street Art Gallery in Fairbanks next February. As our statement about the piece for the current exhibit explains:
"Before his sudden death last summer Barry McWayne came to Jan Dawe’s house to select birch material for his One Tree project. He walked up and down the row of bark samples looking for the piece with the most interesting formations and variations. He settled on NR8, a pre-Civil War tree, oldest of the Nenana Ridge group. We’ve made this book in Barry’s honor, not as he would have made it, but as an attempt to honor the way he was uniquely able to isolate and preserve beautiful passages of bark in his well-known photographs."
It is a privilege to have been able to work on this piece in Barry's honor, from the bark he chose. As I said when I spoke at his memorial service last summer, Barry was not only a dear friend, but was the only artist I know who has loved birch trees as deeply and explored them in images as fervently as I have myself.
It was also a privilege to work on this piece with Margo, in whose style and technique the work is made. I have long admired Margo's work, and I appreciate it even more now, after being introduced firsthand to the painstaking, labor-intensive processes that are involved in the making of her magical, mysterious boxes.