We all know what a birch tree looks like, but after viewing “Boreal Birch” at the Alaska State Museum, you might feel as if you’ve seen the tree for the first time.
“Boreal Birch: Art and Science in the Northern Forest” features work by three of the state’s most highly-regarded artists — painter Kesler Woodward, photographer Barry McWayne and mixed media artist Margo Klass — who collaborated with scientist Kimberley Maher, a leading expert on Alaska birch. Presented in conjunction with “Traditional Birch: Objects from the Alaska State Museum Collection,” which features traditional artifacts such as Athabascan birch bark baskets, “Boreal Birch” invites the viewer to consider the birch tree from many perspectives; as an object of beauty, as a complex physical organism, as an Alaskan species (Betula neoalaskana), as an element of the landscape, as a harbinger of seasonal change, as a raw material for construction, and on it goes.
The exhibit is also a study in creative cross-fertilization. Though each artist maintained their own approach to their work, their influence on each other is evident when viewing the show as a whole. The three artists, who had been close friends for years before embarking on the project, met every two months for two and a half years while the work was in progress to share ideas, ask questions of Maher, and support each other’s work.
“We weren’t sure where the project was going to go,” Klass said. “We wanted to let it evolve over time ... we wanted to learn from each other, be inspired by each other, and see where it went.”
When McWayne died unexpectedly in August 2010 as the work was in progress, his widow, Dorli McWayne, stepped in to help organize her husband’s work and to help make the difficult decision to move forward.
“We decided he would want us to,” Klass said. “And we were far enough along and he had done enough work and printed it, so we felt we had significant body of work to go forward with.”
The show opened at the Pratt Museum in Homer in July 2011, and has been at the state museum in Juneau since November. After it closes on Monday, it will head to the Well Street Art Co. in Fairbanks, its last scheduled stop.
If you have not yet seen it, and don’t plan to travel to Fairbanks next month, this weekend is the time to go.
Queen of the boreal forest
In Fairbanks, where all four of the show’s contributors live, Alaska birch is quite common (it is not native to Juneau); it is one of only six species that grow in the boreal forest. But its familiarity is part of the draw.
“The spruce is mighty, the aspen is mighty too, but the birch is sort of the queen,” Klass said.
All three of the artists had long been working directly or indirectly with birch in their art -- part of the reason they decided to do the show.
Woodward, who moved to Alaska from South Carolina in 1977, has been painting birch trees for more than 30 years. His first birch portrait was done in 1982, and though he paints many other subjects – landscapes, mountains, tundra, rivers – the birch keeps drawing him back.
For this show, he found a new approach to the subject.
“Just in the last couple years I was searching around for a way to create a greater luminosity in the trunks, so I tried painting them the way all the (pieces) in this show are painted, with acrylics,” Woodward said, adding that this quality would have been difficult to achieve in oils.
Alaska State Museum Curator of Exhibitions Paul Gardinier said he was surprised by the look of the paintings when he first took them out of the box, as the thin application of paint was unlike Woodward’s previous work, but once he got them on the wall he was excited by what the painter had achieved.
“Kes said he could have never painted these as a young painter, that it took going through so many cycles of paintings and looking at birch trees to get to the point where he could be so deliberate with every mark.”
Many of the paintings feature up-close birch trunks against a plain white background. Woodward said as he painted the trees over the years, he found himself focusing in more closely on the trunks, to the point where what was behind them became incidental.
“The trunks were beginning to fill the whole canvas. And I looked at one and said, ‘If you’re not going to pay any more attention to the background than that, you might as well just leave it out!’” he said with a laugh.
Woodward, professor of art emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is one of the state’s most respected painters, with works in the Alaska State Museum and Anchorage Museum of History and Art, as well as in galleries around the country. He is also a curator and art historian who has published eight books on Alaskan art.
Woodward said that when the viewer is “nose to nose” with his birch paintings, he wants them to appear abstract; from a distance, they should look like trees. For him, birches accommodate those two desires perfectly.
“I’ve never found any subject matter than enabled me so easily and effectively to make the kind of abstract paintings I want to make,” he said.
This up-close approach to birch trunks and bark is also evident in McWayne’s black and white photographs; many of his backgrounds, like Woodward’s, are plain white or plain black, focusing the eye completely on the birch and the complex texture often evident in the bark. Woodward said both men have been exploring birch in their work for decades, often running on parallel tracks in their respective media.
“We had both done (plain backgrounds) in the past, but in the ones in this show we were definitely influenced by each other,” Woodward said.
McWayne, who moved to Alaska in 1968, worked at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks for more than 35 years, establishing the museum’s first permanent collection of fine art photography and, later, curating the entire fine art collection.
Gardinier said McWayne was one of the first fine art photographers to make the switch to digital format, and, given his huge influence on the art community, brought a lot of people with him.
McWayne’s photographs in this show range from high-contrast images of bark, such as in “Two Burnt Birch,” to subtly nuanced greys of trees in the snow, as in “Birches in Fog North of Fairbanks.”
“There’s a gorgeous tonal range (in “Birches in Fog”) that’s not easy to accomplish,” Gardinier said.
In many images, McWayne, like Woodward, focuses on the birch tree’s “pelt,” bringing it up so close it becomes nearly unrecognizable.
This focus is taken in a different direction by Klass, who mostly uses birch as a jumping off place from which she explores form, color and texture. Her box constructions -- difficult to describe but essentially three-dimensional, very tightly edited object collages -- feature found objects and other materials which she selects without regard for that object’s use or provenance. In this show, the objects may suggest birch trees or their qualities in an abstract way.
For example, “Birch Pelt” which features a piece of corroded, pocked metal, was inspired by McWayne’s photos of birch pelts; the piece contains no birch.
“I’m an object person,” she said. “I think of objects standing in for other things very easily. Everything morphs from one thing to another. So i didn’t have to use all birch to talk about birch in my work.”
When she does use birch, it’s because it works as an object – for example, she chose a birch branch for one piece to provide the tall vertical form she was looking for.
“It happened that I chose a piece of birch to perform that function of a nice long straight but organic vertical form ... but it could have been something else.”
Klass has works in the permanent collections of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and the Museum of the North, and has exhibited her work all over the country. Last year she had a joint show at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council with her husband, writer Frank Soos, called “Constructions and Conversations,” and she’s scheduled to open a solo show at the state museum in March. In addition to her box constructions, Klass also creates what she calls altar pieces, which open like a book and often feature doors (none are included in this show) and hand-made books, some of which can be seen in this show.
In addition to “Birch Pelt,” inspired by McWayne, Klass said she was also directly inspired by the other members of the group in her work for this show. “Spring Run” (not on view in Juneau because it was sold at the Pratt show) was inspired by Maher and a trip out into the field to tap birch trees for sap, and a seasonal series of four pieces -- “Birch Spring,” “Birch Summer,” etc -- was inspired by Woodward’s birch portraits.
The seasonal series also ties in with one of the reasons Klass favors the tree.
“It’s amazing how they change with the seasons -- against the white snow, then against the brown mud season, then the green up,” she said. “That’s what greens up first, you’ve got the aspen of course, but it’s the birch that sends out those incredible bright green leaves.”
Klass said that though there was plenty of cross-fertilization between the artists, none of them changed their artistic process to accommodate the show’s theme.
“In a way, the process comes first, and the response is governed by so many things -- the invitation to collaborate, the learning from each other, the meetings that we had, the good times we had just talking about our work and birch.”
Scientist Maher, a PhD student at UAF, said she felt a little out of her element at first during the meetings, as she sought to define her role.
“I kept showing up to the meetings and saying, ‘So, what is my component?’” she said with a laugh, adding that the artists kept encouraging her to keep it open. But as they got going, she quickly found her footing, answering questions about the physiology of trees and inviting the three artists out for excursions in the field. For the show, Maher wrote descriptions of scientific aspects of the birch tree, including some information about their mythology and symbolism. An educator, she also compiled materials for schools to use when viewing the exhibit.
Though Maher is an expert on birch trees, and the Alaska birch in particular, she couldn’t answer all the questions the artists posed during their meetings.
“They always asked the hardest questions,” she said. “Like ‘Why is the bark color the color it is?’ There’s such a huge variety in the colors of the bark, there’s so many colors that you think are white.”
Maher said that though some of the variation has to do with species or changes in the tree’s life cycle, the variety isn’t something fully understood by science.
This inexplicable range of colors is clearly visible in Woodward’s paintings -- pinks and deep blues, pale purples, oranges, golds and yellows. For him, the dramatic range of individuality among the trees is one aspect that has drawn him back again and again.
“It’s been one of the reasons that I keep coming back to them as subject,” he said. “They kind of stand in for people, almost, in my work.”
Along with “Boreal Birch,” two solo exhibits currently on view will be closing after Saturday: Constance Baltuck’s Recent Works,” and Averyl Veliz’s “A Klondike Tale.”
Baltuck’s show features landscapes or points of interest in the landscape from in and around Juneau and the Kobuk Valley National Park. Baltuck works in watercolors, pastels, oils and acrylics. For more on this artist, check out juneauempire.com/stories/101410/art_720409673.shtml or visit Baltuck's website at www.constancebaltuck.com
Veliz’ show features a series of sketches and digital screen shots from a proposed animated feature film set around the turn of the 20th century in Skagway. For more on Veliz, visit juneauempire.com/stories/020410/art_558709238.shtml and the artist's website, averylveliz.blogspot.com.
The museum’s winter hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
For more information, visit www.museums.state.ak.us.