Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 11:28 AM on Wednesday, July 6, 2011

'Boreal Birch' grows interest in both art, science

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Participants in "Boreal Birch" pose for a photograph at the First Friday opening reception last week. From left to right are Frank Soos, who wrote the introduction to a pamphlet for the exhibit; artist Margo Klass; scientist Kimberley Maher; artist Kesler Woodward; and Dorli McWayne, widow of photographer Barry McWayne.

As part of its ongoing art and science collaborations, the Pratt Museum periodically invites artists to learn from science and create art on subjects such as plankton or the tides. This fall, the museum asks artists to continue that exploration in connecting art and archaeology with the theme of "Who Lived Here?"

A show that opened last week at the Pratt, "Boreal Birch: Art and Science in the Northern Forest," brings together science and art more directly. In a talk last Thursday night and at the First Friday opening, University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Kimberley Maher spoke front and center with artists Margo Klass and Kesler Woodward. Photographer Barry McWayne, who died in August 2010, was represented by his wife, Dorli McWayne.

"People just feel really disconnected from what scientists are doing," Maher said at last Thursday's talk. "I see this as an opportunity — and to learn something new about birch."

Klass, Woodward and McWayne sought out Maher three years ago when they put together a proposal for the Pratt show. The Fairbanks artists wanted to examine the many aspects of birch and looked for a scientist studying birch trees to round out their team. Asking around at UAF, the same name kept coming up.

"Everyone said 'Kimberley Maher' — she's the birch tree person," said Woodward.

Maher, now working on her doctoral dissertation, brings her knowledge of Alaska birch trees to the project. Her text describes aspects of birch forest ecology, like tree succession, but also subjects like birch trees in mythology and folklore. Maher also has an art book she made about birch trees in the show.

Woodward paints landscapes, too, but keeps coming back to the birch as subject.

"I paint birches and I paint birches and I paint birches until I'm sick of them," he said. "(Then) I'm suddenly staring at the front of a tree and thinking, 'This is the most beautiful thing I've seen.'"

What appeals to him about birch trees as subject is how he can paint both realistically and abstractly, Woodward said. Close up you can't see the tree or the forest, just colorful shapes. From a distance, his paintings look like trees.

"I make big abstract paintings that happen to look like birches," he said.

Klass, who, with her husband, poet Frank Soos, had a show at Bunnell Street Arts Center earlier this year, creates sculptures she calls altars. A collector of curious artifacts both natural and human, Klass assembles them in 3-dimensional collages.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Margo Klass uses grinding wheels to suggest beaver teeth that has ground two pieces of birch in one of her sculptures.

"It all started for me as book art," she said of her pieces that often fold together like a book. "I find these wonderful objects. The less I know about them, the better. They become pure form, pure texture, pure color."

McWayne, who Woodward called "one of Alaska's best and best known photographers," also looked at birches. Working in black and white, like Woodward he considers the birch at the macro and micro scale. Woodward and McWayne both were fascinated by the texture and color of birch bark.

"What we have done is walk up close to the birches and look at what's going on in what we call their 'pelts,'" Woodward said.

As a scientist, Maher also came to know birches intimately. For a study on the effects of tapping birch for syrup, she looked at 90 trees.

"Each to me had its own personality," Maher said. "I knew what to expect from each tree."

In their collaboration, the artists got together over the years to discuss approaches and subject.

Each looked at the same idea in different ways.

For her study of birch bark, Klass' "Birch Pelt" uses a scrap of rusting corrugated roofing to evoke the texture of bark.

In a study of burned birches, McWayne photographs the rawness of charred black against white. Klass interprets the same idea with a collage using a rust encrusted pitch fork blade.

"We're looking at the same things, but the expression of those things are very different," Klass said.

Some works also are intensely personal, like "In Their Prime," Woodward's painting of several old birches. Tragically, Woodward's wife Missy died about the same time as McWayne. In talking about their losses, Dorli McWayne told Woodward that one of the hardest things about the deaths was that both were in their prime, he said.

With "Boreal Birches" installed, out of that collaboration comes resolution.

"Our conversation has been very deep, personal and lovely," Klass said. "The circle has come to a close."

"Boreal Birches" remains on exhibit at the Pratt through Oct. 2. It also show Nov. 4, 2011, to Jan. 14, 2012, at the Alaska State Museum, Juneau, and Feb. 3-26, 2012, at Well Street Art Co., Fairbanks.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.