Somewhere Between Art and Nature

In his new book, Woodcut, artist Bryan Nash Gill displays wood stump prints that read as personal histories. In the book’s introduction, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes op-eds for The New York Times, describes how “Gill’s art – his ability to capture the individuality of these trees – is a reminder that there is something generic or platonic in the mere working out of the life force in each organism. What separates each organism and gives it its distinctive, living shape is experience.” In other words, the form of the tree results from its history, with each experience registered in its interior rings. Through a process of cutting, sanding, and burning, Gill makes this history legible; each print reveals lifetime of interactions with human and non-human forces.

In Spruce, 2008, we see that this tree was 97 years old when it died. It had a branch cut at age twenty, and a metal spike was driven into it when it was thirty. The white lines are tunnel holes from insect invasions, typical of soft-wood species such as Norway spruce. The pruned branch and metal spike reveal interactions with humans, and the insect scars reveal interactions with nature. All of these factors result in the form of the tree. However, the print itself is just as much a product of Gill’s creative process as it is the tree itself.

The progression from wood to wood block to print represents a series of creative decisions. Gill salvages wood from anywhere he can find it including his own property and local farms. He chooses his wood based on the qualities he’s interested in investigating. Once he has found an appropriate piece of wood, he will cut it up with a chainsaw, paying particular attention to areas within the wood that he finds interesting. This process transforms the wood into a wood block. He continues cutting until he is satisfied.

In preparation for print, the block undergoes a treatment of sanding and burning as well as additional manipulation with a variety of tools. The exact method of preparation depends on the species of tree and the quality of the wood. Next, the wood block is inked. This is not a simple matter of applying ink but instead a subjective decision based on Gill’s aesthetic judgment. Gill writes, “the print is not a fingerprint of the wood; it’s not a stamp. It’s the feel of the wood that I’m after.” Similarly, the choices of paper and printing process are artistic choices. Therefore, the resulting print is not simply documentation of the life of a tree but an aesthetic object in its own right. In the print below, Southport Oak, we see a series of cracks that resulted from the block air drying in Gill’s studio.

Abstracted from their source, the tree rings form beautiful printed patterns. Gill’s process heightens the contrast of the rings, allowing his prints to achieve a level of intricacy and detail that does not exist on a typical piece of cut wood. Still, Gill never allows his work to become completely abstracted from its origin: each print indicates the species and age of the original tree.

This relationship between nature and art is central to landscape architecture. Landscapes are continually shaped by human and non-human processes. It’s through intentional design that a landscape becomes an aesthetic object. While at first glance Gill’s prints are unbiased reproductions of natural objects, they are actually highly designed art pieces, just as much about Gill’s own artistic impulses as they are about the trees. In the same way, while a park may appear to be natural, it’s actually the aesthetic result of an intentional design. 

In addition to bridging the gap between art and nature, Gill’s work is a reminder that people and nature are interconnected, often in invisible ways. Interactions with human and non-human forces influence the forms of trees, and these histories are permanently registered in their rings. Sometimes the relationship between people and nature can become convoluted. In the case of Cedar Pole, Gill’s print reveals a mundane telephone pole to be built from a 200+ year old cedar tree.

Just as trees are influenced by a variety of human and non-human forces, we are subject not only to dealings with other people but the ecology of our surrounding environment. While we do not create rings to register our experiences, our lives are still influenced by a variety of daily interactions with a host of cultural and ecological processes. The design of our landscapes facilitates these interactions.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: Bryan Nash Gill / Woodcut. Princeton Architectural Press

2 thoughts on “Somewhere Between Art and Nature

  1. Gina Gaviglio 06/20/2012 / 10:40 am

    perfect art

  2. thomas h cullen 07/13/2014 / 7:42 am

    Because people, in fact will have arranged a woodland to look as it does, it would be said that this woodland “isn’t nature”:

    It can be still – the way we’ve predisposed to arranging is still nature.

    It’s capacity, to produce enticing pictures, and transcendent thought:

    This is the beauty of nature.

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