Nature Prints as Art

4 Eden

Announcement for Propagating Eden exhibit at Wave Hill, Bronx NY

I firmly believe that art and science can’t be separated, and that this is particularly true in botany.  Plants are simply beautiful, and that beauty has attracted many people to study them more closely, even in this age of “plant blindness.”  For some, nature printing has become an absorbing hobby, with the Nature Printing Society having several hundred members.  It publishes a newsletter that focuses on techniques as well as reviews of published works with nature prints.  The Society has also produced an informative guide to nature printing, not only of plants but of animals as well, particularly fish (Huffman, 2016).  For the latter, the primary technique is Japanese gyotaku that creates stunning works that even a botanist could love.

Since I’m interested in the fabric arts, particularly quilting and embroidery, I’ve gotten a couple of books on nature printing on fabric as well as paper (Bethmann, 2011; Dahl, 2002).  I’ve used the technique just enough to know that, like creating herbarium specimens, there is quite a bit of expertise involved that only practice will make anywhere near perfect.  However, the basic idea is simple; it’s something that a child can do with a sturdy leaf covered with marker ink on one side and pressed on a sheet of paper.  There is a magic to this because it’s a way to make venation a focus of attention.  I keep coming back to the Mabey (2015) quote with which I began this series of posts to the effect that no technique can capture the essence of a plant perfectly.  However, nature printing can very effectively highlight certain aspects of that essence.

Several years ago, there was an exhibit at the Wave Hill estate in the Bronx, NY on nature printing in botany and art.  It was there that I fell in love with the technique because this rather small exhibit captured the history of nature printing so thoroughly.  It included some of the earlier works that I’ve already cited such as those of Franklin, Atkins, Auer, and Bradbury.  But what really grabbed my attention were the various ways in which 20th and 21st-century artists have employed nature printing.  Kiki Smith was represented by a lithograph with pressed leaves.  Another striking example was Ed Ruscha’s Clock of 1994 with what appears to be dried grass glued to the page, but is actually a print made by a proprietary technique called Mixografia, a relief color printing process.

In conjunction with this exhibit, there was a symposium on several aspects of nature printing:  Karen Reeds (2006) spoke on the technique’s history, including her research on Leonardo Da Vinci’s role, Patricia Jonas compared nature prints with herbarium specimens, and Michele Oka Doner described using nature prints in her art.  In the show was a striking Doner print of what looked like the tree of blood vessels in the lungs, but was in reality a print made with roots of banyan trees that she collected from the beach near her Florida home.  This work a beautiful example of how branching patterns are ubiquitous in nature, as are her massive prints of the human body.  As an aside, I have to add that several months later I encountered her work again, this time at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, MI.  Doner designed the floor of the visitor’s center—an installation called Beneath the Leafy Crown (2009)—with 1600 “prints” of plants and invertebrates done in bronze and embedded into terrazzo (Becherer, 2010).

In his extensive historical review of nature printing, Roderick Cave (2010) cites other nature printers who were artists rather than botanists.  Most notable is the surrealist Max Ernst who used what he called frottage:  making rubbings from the surface of wood or other materials, especially in his series Histoire naturelle of 1926.  Arthur Rushmore, an American print maker, developed his own technique for creating what he called “hay prints,” which influenced later artists.  The British artist Morris Cox also employed prints imaginatively, combining them with his poems.  Some are quite fanciful, such as a human figure of printed grass, others are more reminiscent of 19th-century colored prints of flowers.  He sometimes also included a favorite subject of earlier printers: lace.

I want to end with the work of one of my favorite contemporary nature printers, one who unfortunately passed away shortly after publishing an amazing book that I mentioned in an earlier post on xylaria and tree rings.  It’s Woodcut by Bryan Nash Gill (2012), a collection of, quite literally, wood prints.  Gill would cut a slice through a tree trunk, meticulously sand it, apply ink, and make relief prints of the wood’s raised grain.  He printed not only cross sections of trunks, but cuts through milled planks as well, often juxta-positioning them in interesting patterns.  His works are definitely in the realm of art not science, but for the botanist they are still wonderful reminders of the beauty and mystery beneath the surface of a tree, beneath the bark.  This reminds me, that bark, too, can be a subject for the nature printer, and this will be my next art project.  I doubt that it will result in a great work of either art or science, but I am sure I will learn something more about the printing process and about the wonders of bark texture.

References

Becherer, J. (2010). Michele Oka Doner. Grand Rapids, MI: Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

Bethmann, L. D. (2011). Hand Printing from Nature. North Adams, MA: Storey.

Cave, R. (2010). Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. London: British Library.

Dahl, C. A. (2002). Natural Impressions. New York, NY: Watson-Guptill.

Gill, B. N. (2012). Woodcut. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Huffman, S. (2016). The Art of Printing from Nature: A Guidebook from the Nature Printing Society. Lake Shore, MN: Nature Printing Society.

Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York, NY: Norton.

Reeds, K. (2006). Leonardo da Vinci and botanical illustration: Nature prints, drawings, and woodcuts ca. 1500. In Visualizing medieval medicine and natural history, 1200-1550 (pp. 205–237). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

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Tree Rings

Tree Rings Art Poskanzer

Tree Rings, photo by Art Poskanzer.

In discussing wood collections as I have in the last two posts (1, 2), it’s impossible not to touch upon the subject of tree rings. They are most apparent in cross sections through the trunk and are evidence of what was going on in the environment around the tree as the cells of these woody tissues were forming. Rings have long been used in dendrochronology: dating the age of trees and of wood specimens by counting the yearly rings. To do this effectively requires a great deal of patience and a large reference collection in order to come up with absolute dates. Such a collection exists at the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research (LTRR) at the University of Arizona. Founded in 1937, this facility was built on the work of a pioneer in the field, A.E. Douglass. The LTRR now houses 80,000 tree ring specimens, making it possible to date wood over a wide range of time frames. Though not listed in the Index Xylariorum, perhaps because of its narrow focus, it definitely counts as a wood collection in my book.

Tree ring research is about history. It’s about using tree growth as a way to count years, but it is also much more than that, because trees don’t grow the same type of ring every year. The amount of growth, wood density, and color are all affected by the conditions under which the development took place, as well as by the biology of the species. Tree rings can tell something about the weather conditions at a particular time, and weather measured over years reveals something about climate and thus climate change. This particular kind of wood collection has become more valuable as scientists scramble to figure out what is happening to climate now and what has happened in the past. A very old piece of wood or petrified wood millions of years old can’t be absolutely dated. However, if the species can be identified, and it’s related to a present-day tree, then measurement of these ancient rings may very well tell researchers something about the conditions affecting its growth. Needless to say, the LTRR is carrying out a good deal of this research, but it is being done in many other labs as well, not only by botanists but by geographers and climatologists. There is an active program at the University of Tennessee; it is run out of the geography program, and they have an interesting website if tree ring research is something you relish. In addition, the National Centers for Environmental Information tackle paleoclimatology from a number of angles including dendrochronology.

Before I leave the subject of tree rings, I want to introduce two artists’ projects dealing with the topic. One is John Stoney’s “A Dark Forest” (2013), a tongue-in-cheek report on his efforts to find a tree that was as exactly as old as himself. He was 47 at the time, and using a tool to extract tree cores, he found everything from teenagers to 300-years-olds, and finally discovered one that he claims revealed its date of germination to be October 16, 1965. Along the way, he relates the history left in the varying characteristics of the rings, telling of drought and also of good weather, with similar highs and lows in his own life. It’s an interesting approach to exploring a human’s relationship to nature.

More to my liking is a wonderful book called Woodcut by the late Bryan Nash Gill (2012). It’s a collection of, quite literally, wood prints. Gill would cut a slice through a tree trunk, sand it, apply ink, and make relief prints, that is, impressions of the wood’s raised grain. He began this project while he was building a studio on his family’s farmland in Connecticut. He felt a connection to the trees that were being used in construction, some felled on the property, and he wanted to document that link. His largest print is of an ash trunk about four feet in width; an old cedar telephone pole turned out to be over 200 years old. Admittedly, this is art and not science, but these works do reveal the wonder of a tree’s life and how much more it is than just a wood factory. Usually, a cross section is seen as a tool for determining age or a grain pattern that might look good as a piece of furniture, but here the patterns presented in black and white are meant to be appreciated in their own right.

References

Gill, B. N. (2012). Woodcut. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Stoney, J. (2013). Artist project/A dark forest. Cabinet, 48, 61–65.