Color, Light, and Climbing


Douglas-fir - Top of Crown - Leah Wilson

Douglas-fir – Top of Crown (Air Temperature), Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2020, 46 in. x 62 in., Panel 13 of 16 Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson

Listening to the Forest

Getting Physical – The Magic Bubbly

I can’t really know a place until I have physical engagements with it .

Making artwork about the land and ecosystems isn’t physically engaging enough. There needs to be more, and it needs to be as intense as the art making process. The making and the physical engagement are both fundamental, intertwined aspects of my creative process. If the art doesn’t include the physical element, the project is flat Champagne without the magical bubbly.

Physically engaging with a specific place requires attention – attention is the doorway to myriad avenues of deepened knowing and wonder. The importance of wonder is that it unfolds into curiosity and inquiry. Wonder and open-ended inquiry are threads that keep me oriented as I move through a project. Working with contemporary environmental issues can produce powerful emotional responses. I am wary of working from a place of heightened emotionality because it is too easy to descend into narrow, didactic, or pedantic art making. Wonder and curiosity are antidotes.

Discovery Tree Climb 1

Climbing the tree entails doing squats over and over again for 50 meters

Leah Climbs Discovery Tree 2

Kayaking – Embedding Intuition

When I was teaching whitewater kayaking, I was on the same stretch of river almost daily. The daily engagement embedded a knowing of the place that is beyond words. I could feel the water changing and would know that I needed to speed up the pace of the class to finish; I could smell the seasons changing; I could hear the currents and my body could anticipate what to do faster than thinking my way through. I knew it so well that I was even able to kayak the river in the darkness of night. The type of attention that was required on a daily basis embedded a strong and reliable intuition that I was only vaguely aware I had.


Kayaking daily begins to eliminate any separation of the river from the body (Photo credit: Jason Bates)

I felt very much part of the place and the river. I was an extension of it. I do not have the luxury of that type of daily being now. When I am in my studio long hours, this type of knowing is brought to light from conjuring memories and intuition.

Now I need to fold this into the design of my projects. Once I get this part, the other things start to fall into place.

Recompose @ Joan Truckenbrod Gallery - Leah Wilson

Recompose, Gouache on hand cut watercolor paper (wall installation at the Truckenbroad Gallery), 16 in x 69 in.

Listening to the Forest – A Change of Course

Originally, I planned to develop an idea centered on lichen to build off of Recompose. I met with Dr. Chris Still and graduate student Adam Sibley at Oregon State University to cultivate a project concept.

During our lengthy conversation, Adam mentioned briefly that when he climbs the Discovery Tree for his research, a 60 meter old-growth Douglas-fir tree in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, what strikes him the most is how the light intensity and color changes as he ascends. His comment reshaped and generated the concept for the entire Listening to the Forestproject.

Adam in the canopy of the Discovery Tree

Adam Sibley sitting in the crown of the Discovery Tree

The Only Barbie Doll

Years earlier Fred Swanson planted the seed of climbing trees. I learned about Nalini Nadkarni’s pioneering research in the canopies of tropical forests. Check out her captivating TED Talk. She even has a treetop Barbie, which as far as I know, is the only Barbie I could ever be interested in having. I also read The Wild Trees by Richard Preston about scientist Steve Sillett and others climbing Northern California’s giant redwoods and discovering previously unknown ecosystems high in the forest canopy.

My curiosity was piqued.

Nalini Nadkarni with her Treetop Barbie

Nalini Nadkarni with her Treetop Barbie

I wanted to climb a tall tree, but I really didn’t have a good reason to other than it sounded like something that would be really cool to experience.

When Adam talked about light, color, and climbing, I knew that I found the idea: I would climb the tree 4 times over a year, one time each season, with my camera to collect my chromatic data like I had for Solstices and Equinoxes.

I finally had a good reason to climb a tree.

Sampling Team

Tim holds a color checker as I take a photo for Solstices & Equinoxes (We took a photo of the light and color changes every 10 minutes from sunrise to sunset)

Summer Solstice, Oil on 3 wood panels, 40 in. x 96 in., Leah Wilson

Solstices & Equinoxes: Summer Solstice, Oil on 3 wood panels, 40 in. x 96 in.

A Pathetically Incompetent Spider

The rain poured down steadily the first day that I met Adam at the Discovery Tree. Since I had been an avid rock climber in my 20s, I thought that I would pick up climbing a tree immediately. My plan was to quickly ascend to the top, then take photos on my way down. I was excited to have a set of photos taken during a storm like a I had with Solstices and Equinoxes: Winter Solstice.

It took hours to figure out the gear, which is not extensive: a few lengths of 1 inch tubular webbing, some carabiners, two ascenders, a descender, a rope, and a harness. Through frustration I learned that if the webbing is not the correct length for your body, climbing is very difficult. I expended too much energy trying to just get myself off of the ground.

Not far away, Lookout Creek was swollen and rising steadily. Stubbornly, I persisted and continued to wear myself out, but I was finally able to ascend about 10 feet. I dangled not far off the ground like a pathetically incompetent spider as I struggled to switch from the ascenders to the descender to practice coming down. Once I accomplished that, I squeezed the trigger too hard on the descender to return to the ground. Almost immediately, my butt thudded down hard in the wet forest duff. My descent was more of a fall than a graceful glide like Adam had demonstrated. Not for the first time in the outdoors, I had been humbled while playing with nature.

A Pathetically Incompetent Spider

A dangling incompetent spider (I was stuck just feet from the ground for longer than I would like to admit)

Following Adam, I climbed up to the first set of branches, about 20 meters up from the ground. We sat on the thick branches in the rain. He perched on his like it was the most ordinary thing; I made sure that I had so much tension on my rope that it was painful and almost debilitating, while maintaining a death grip on the branch. I tried, unsuccessfully, to appear relaxed.

The rush of the creek thudded in our ears much louder than from the forest floor. The rain dribbled down the neck of my rain jacket, up the sleeves, and down into my rain pants. Cold, soaked to the bone, unable to relax, and not even halfway up the tree, the experience of sitting mid-bole in an old-growth tree during a storm was exhilaratingly transcendent.

Rope Walking Stephen Calkins

Rope walking graduate student Stephen Calkins

Adam and I returned a month later on a sunny day. I hadn’t climbed past the first branches the first day, and I was disappointed that I was not able to incorporate a large storm into Listening to the Forest. Each of the following four climbs were on dry days with blue skies, an unlikely outcome for Western Oregon. But, with all of my projects, chance plays a large roll. I hand a lot over to the landscape to determine the compositions.

Each subsequent climb became easier. I can now stand comfortably on narrow branches in the tree’s crown. When the wind blows, it stirs up a familiar feeling: the tree sways in its unique orbit and it feels like sitting in a kayak in an eddy on a river while the currents carry the boat, up down and around in the patterns of the river.

Adam and Leah comfortably hanging out in the crown of the Discovery Tree

Adam and Leah comfortably hanging out in the crown of the Discovery Tree

Heavy with Blue

The color does change like Adam described it. At the forest floor the air is heavy with blue. At mid bole it is as if the air is not quite so heavy and it is infused with green. Then it shifts, almost immediately, once you climb above the forest canopy into the crown of the tall old-growth tree. The green dissipates and the air becomes brilliantly gold.

Adam and I talked about how the leaves absorb different frequencies of light, explaining the color changes. There are studies that measure the light spectral composition in forests. I attempted to capture that with my camera, but it wasn’t possible. I tried different techniques of capturing ambient color that I learned through several past projects including Solstices and Equinoxes, Ambient, and Average Colors of the South Yuba River: a mathematical determination of an aesthetic value. The color of the light is not equivalent to the color of water. It evades camera sensors and I could not rely on technology to capture color references.

Forest Light

Climbing the tree was the only way for me to know the light and color changes that Adam described. It’s almost if the light shift can be felt, as well as seen. I now understand why the light quality stands out for him. Explaining the light and the color only talks around the experience – it can never get directly to it.

Discovery Tree Light

With Listening to the Forest, I want the color to be experienced indirectly, almost magically, like it is in the forest. I want it to change with perspective and location of the viewer, the shadows produced by the layers of cutout spaces that define the cellular structure of the wood anatomy, and the quality of ambient light in the building. This is the part of the project that is the least controlled. It’s the part that I hope works. It relies on my own intuition and past experiences. I don’t know what will happen.

Red Alder - Mid Bole
Red Alder – Mid Bole (Leaf Wetness), Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2020, 46×62 in., Panel 2 of 16 Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson

The not knowing and the collaboration between the building and the panels to produce something shifting and elusive is exciting. Riding the thin line between failure and magic is my favorite place to play when I make art. But it is also the most frightening. I don’t always succeed. I won’t know if it works until the panels are installed and after it is too late to make changes.

Trust is essential. If you want to climb a tree, you need to trust the gear. Trusting the gear is the easy part. Trusting the intuition that nature embeds within you as you engage with it feels much more risky and uncertain. If you want to play with magic, you need to trust something mysterious.

Reflected Color

Detail: Red Alder Root with reflected color – a play of light and shadow (magic)

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Wisdom

Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer expresses how science can help you see. We have amazing technology and lenses that allow us to see far beyond what our physical capabilities allow. But seeing is a limited way of knowing. To know more about the land, you need to learn how to listen. As I understand it, this is a listening that goes beyond our sense capabilities, and wonder amplifies the sound. Being able to listen requires close attention and intuition to follow the ineffable and evanescent threads found within the land. These threads contain wisdom.

Threads of wisdom can shape lines of inquiry, scientific and artistic. The land can become a collaborator in human projects rather than being a separate object of observation. This change of perspective gives me hope that we can create relationships bonded by reciprocity with the land that will influence how we decide to live with it for the better.

Looking Down the Discovery Tree

Robin Wall Kimmerer has helped me find words to communicate the ineffable. Her work has made me more consciously aware of the threaded wisdom and embedded knowledge that I have from my time spent physically engaging with the land and water. She has led me to trust my intuition, a gift of reciprocity from the land given in exchange for my attention and devotion. She has helped me become a better artist by creating from a place of reciprocity with the forest. The title of my project, Listening to the Forest, is a homage to Robin Wall Kimmerer, taken from a line in her essay Interview with a watershed published in Forest Under Story:

“Rich as they are, conversation, mathematics and poetry are but human languages. And I think there is another language, the forgotten language of the land. Its alphabet is the elements themselves, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen. The words are living beings and its syntax is connection. There is a flow of information, a network of relationship conveyed in rising sap of cedars, in tree roots grafted to fungi and fungi to orchids, orchids to bees, bees to bats, bats to owls, owls to bones and bones to the soil of cedars. This is the language we have yet to learn, and the stories we must hear, stories which are simultaneously material and spiritual. The archive of this language, the sacred text, is the land itself. In the woods, there is a constant stream of data, lessons on how we might live, stories of reciprocity, stories of connection. Species far older than our own show us daily how to live. We need to listen to the land, not just for data, but for wisdom.

~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Interview with a watershed

Pacific Yew - Mid Bole

Pacific Yew- Mid Bole (Leaf Wetness), Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2020, 46×62 in., Panel 10 of 16 Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson

Read all of the Listening to the Forest stories

Webinar: Listening to the Forest

Webinar: Listening to the Forest

Join us on Wednesday, May 12 at 4 PM for a conversation about the new public art installation “Listening to the Forest,” located in the George W. Peavy Forest Science Center on the OSU campus. The discussion will be preceded by a short video introducing the artwork and will include a live Q&A with the artist Leah Wilson, moderated by Dr. Brooke Penaluna.

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Mock-up Sketch for Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson

Field Research, Discovery Tree, HJ Andrews Experimental Forest – Leah Wilson

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