Installation Bark Shrine

“Bark Shrine," McGuffey Art Center, Charlottesville, VA, tulip poplar bark, pine needles, sumac berry clusters, aialanthus, 8'dia x 9.5'h, 2002

Below is a story I wrote about this project

DESTINY Summer 2001

    It’s all my sister Nina’s fault or maybe Mr. Buckner’s.  

“There’s someone logging on Buckner’s property. They’re
dragging the logs right up next to the road," Nina
announces. "Big logs. Bark is falling off them.”
She knows I’m signed up to take a workshop this
summer exploring bark vessels with Dorothy Gill Barnes, the guru
of bark in America. I already took one class earlier in
Jan, 2001 with Cass Schorsch. Cass likes to refine her bark
into ¼ inch strips and even smaller. I like my bark more as
it comes off the tree as does Dorothy Barnes. In Cass’s
workshop we used bark she collected the summer before, as no
tree is going to give up it’s bark in the middle of the
winter. It must be high summer, sap flowing, water filling
the inner cambian layers.
Cass brings sheets of birch bark which we dutifully cut
into 1/4” strips. Some birch will curl more than other’s
and my birch strips look like Shirley Temple’s hair. I’ve
done enough weaving in my time and I’m not about to try and
weave that tangled mess. What does interest me is a small
bundle of foot long red pine bark striped off one inch
diameter branches. It’s rolled just as if it is still
attached to the stick and has the most unusual and
prominent lenticles or air holes, very pleasing horizontal
dashes to compliment the narrow verticality of the bark.
Now these inspire me and while everyone else tames the
tangles, I set to sewing the pieces together. This all
reminds me of kindergarten when the teacher wanted us to
make clay snowmen and I just had to make a squirrel. I
stick a few acorns in gaps in the seams of the sewn bark.
In the end the inner bark is on the outside of my water
tower like piece. The acorns keep popping out and I decide
I like the little holes better.
But back to the logging operation. This is all too
soon for me. While I know the theory of stripping bark off
trees, I haven’t actually done any and Cass did not at all
cover stripping of thick bark off huge trees. It must be
summer time, which it is, and only certain trees will divest
themselves of their bark…tulip poplar, pine, willow,
hickory. Forget oak. It all seems too daunting, but I
drive up my sister’s road to the logging operation and get
out and survey the scene, or should I say devastation. Huge
tulip poplar logs, some four feet in diameter and 20 feet
long lay side by side in mud smelling of hog yard. They lay
next to a funky old crane and huge truck already stacked
with logs. Panic. They’ve already loaded up the logs.
What if this is the last of the logs and I’ll miss out?
This is all way too big for me. I look at those huge logs
and chunks of bark laying everywhere. What do I want? How
to get it? I do pick up a couple of pieces and put them in
my car. Souvenirs, maybe all I will get.
I drive home. Will the loggers let me collect bark?
Will Mr. Buckner, owner of the land let me collect? All day I
ponder, formulate, my mind doing it’s usual act of creating
this and that over and over. I keep seeing those huge logs
laying there. I want big pieces of bark. I want to make
some kind of structure that I can get inside of. I am drawn
to creating shelter, whether for me or for my imagination.
The next morning I can hear the whine of a machine up the
hollow and I know it’s the loggers. Reminding myself that
if I don’t at least ask, the answer will definitely be no.
I drive to the logging site. Soon enough a man driving a
skidder, a kind of huge tractor with gigantic wheels
designed to drag logs, pulls into the muck with a 16 foot
log. I gulp. Most of these guys don’t want to be bothered
much less be understanding about the needs of an artist.
It turns out that this is a one man logging
operation and Bill Taylor is a very nice soft spoken man who none the less
is a bit leery of allowing some woman around the logs. He
doesn’t want to be sued when I break a leg slipping off a
log. I tell him I don’t want to hurt myself either. If I
can get permission from Mr. Buckner I can go up into the
woods. I drive to Mr. Buckner’s and he chews my ear for
about a half hour, but I always enjoy his tales of the area
and permission is granted. Bill says he will use his crane
to move any pieces of bark that come off the logs in the log
yard. And he does, but I soon find out getting bark this
way won’t work. The bark is already scraped from dragging
and the claws on the crane further mash and split the bark.
Thus begins my intimate adventure among the logs.
Each afternoon after Bill leaves I come up and assess what I can
scavenge. I’ve decided I want bark ten feet long and in at
least half rounds. It’s hard to do this as the logs are all
lined tight up next to each other, but the end ones I can
usually get at. If the bark is not too damaged by dragging,
I cut with a chain saw around the part I want to strip, but
only through the bark trying not to damage the log. I then
take two flat bladed pry bars and work my way around all the
cut edges including the ends. I am learning that this helps
prevent splitting of the bark. It’s as hot as summer in
Virginia, which it is. I’m wearing jeans and a long sleeved
shirt and my hard hat for chain sawing. I am wet. I get
my soggy gloved fingers under the edges of the bark and
pull. The pry bars fall out at this point and if I’m in
luck, my fingers will not be trapped between bark and log.
I wonder if Carl would come find me after dark or if I can
yell at someone as they drive by to release me. I pull
some more and am rewarded by a gentle ripping sound as bark
leaves log. If I’m able, I get a flat bladed shovel under
and pry, also gently. It takes all my finesse and all my
strength to pull and not split the bark. Where is my
husband you ask? I have fired him from this part of the
operation as he is too rough on the bark. He just wants
this miserable experience to be done with as expeditiously
as possible and I’m beginning to have grand visions of a
palisade of standing bark, row after row of rounded tree
trunks.
Sometimes I have to wedge my forearms between bark
and tree to separate them. Both bark and tree are slimy wet. When
the last little bit of recalcitrant bark is freed the whole
piece wants to slide off. The light green inner bark is so
alive at this moment. Touching it bark makes a bruise. It
really is like skinning something alive. It is a painful
moment for me, me the vegetarian who will not eat flesh,
those poor animals in the killing yards. Here I am in the
killing yard of ancient tulip poplars. Some of them must be
over 100 years.
My freed piece of bark now has a mind of it’s own
and it starts to slide down the sloping logs. If I can control
this I can maneuver the bark closer to my truck and also
avoid the stinking mud hole, so alive with run off of the
slime of the bark. Finally I drag the wet floppy bark to my
truck and heave one end on the tailgate and then lift up the
other end and push. Victory. I don’t have to enlist my
husband’s help this time. My “honey-do” list is long with
odd requests. I hang on the edge of the truck, totally
sweat soaked wondering what in the world I am really doing,
but this great opportunity to make something BIG pushes me
on.
After the short drive home I drag the bark, it’s
kind of like a beached walrus, on our lawn and trim edges with the
chain saw and scrub off imbedded mud and debris. I cut
spacers to hold open the bark as I’ve learned it will start
curling in on itself unless restrained. I make trip after
trip to Cliff Miller’s horse barn where I lay out the bark,
wrap rope around it, steal heavy stones from a nearby
retaining wall and place them on all the split parts for
these edges will also start curling. I want the look of
solid tree. The whole side of the barn slowly fills with
these barks in bondage going way beyond the space Cliff
alotted me. Time to let them dry.
I haul some smaller bark pieces to the Dorothy Gill
Barnes workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, but
we never get around to using them. I do have a great two
weeks learning about stripping other barks and manipulating
them. Dorothy is sorry we don’t use the big bark, but I
know my time is coming. I have convinced the McGuffy Art
Center in Charlottesville, Virginia to give me a show in
their main gallery sometime in 2002. We have hashed out the
fire liability problems and in the end, they just decide to
not mention it to the fire marshall. The structure surely
will not spontaneously ignite and I can’t imaging any
teenage arsonist wanting to touch off my structure inside
the gallery.
Back home the bark dries. I order some rough cut
lumber to make frames for my bark. As I go through my days, in my
mind I build my shrine. I have built my own handmade hippie
house and have a lifetime of getting myself in jams and
working out ways to solve problems. I pick up the lumber on
the morning of Sep. 11. The owner is not there so I back
the truck up to the locked gates and haul the boards to the
truck. Where in the world is he, but I am hot on this
project. I stop at the Farmer’s Coop and find out about the
terrorist attacks. The enormity does not sink in easily.
I stack my newly cut boards (they just happen to be tulip
poplar) to dry in the barn. I drive home through our
beautiful, sparsely settled Rappahannock County and feel all
is safe here, but I think the earth does know of the
disaster just 90 miles away at the Pentagon and in New Yorrk
City.
Three weeks later I spend a couple of days making
frames for the openings of each piece of bark. I drill three holes
on each side of the bark and frames to be able to wire them
together. I cut and hopefully square up the ragged ends and
stand them up, stacking them down the middle of the barn.
Now that they are upright, now that I can actually see the
bark side, see them next to each other, I get an idea of
what will come. But they seem a bit dingy and gray in this
dark barn. Finally all are stacked upright and only take up
about a 10 by 10 square foot space. Cliff will be relieved
to have them thus condensed.
` My annual Christmas pottery sale takes up my fall
and the bark is left behind in the barn. But it’s alive in my
mind. I build and tear down. I try and think of everything
we will need to build this thing in the two days I will have
to put it up in Charlottesville. I decide to prefabricate
some of the pine needle stuffed in bird netting components
for the portal to the shrine. I’ve done a few on site pine
needle installations before, but prefabing is an iffy
situation since I don’t really know what I need yet. I make
two eight foot long tapered “tails” in hopes they will be
useful. I’ve lined up helper elves and a huge trailer to
haul the bark.
New Year’s Day morning finds me dumpster
diving at Early’s Carpets for rug remnants. Carl gets the
trailer and we stack the bark on it using the rug remnants
as padding and all is strapped down. I pack our small truck
with my more normal sized bark vessels and the big truck
with bags of pine needles and sumac berries.
Early the next morning the entourage drives down to
Charlottesville, Va. Carl is worried that the truck and
trailer won’t make the corners in town, but we arrive safely
and spend an hour or so shelpping bark and bags of pine
needles and my precious smaller work up flights of stairs
and into the gallery. Slowly the bark is stacked vertically
next to each other against the high white walls. In this
space they look massive, primal, just what I imagined.
Maneuvering and wiring the bark into an outer circle and
then an inner one is not difficult with four people. The
curving forms helps them stand up. I just wish I had two
more pieces as there is a 7 foot wide gap in the inner
circle where I want to make some kind of pine needle and
sumac berry centerpiece. We stand on the do-not-stand-on
top rungs of our ladders to add hidden supports. Friends
arrive with our 2 ½ year old god child and video camera.
Madhouse. I finally tell them to take their child and
leave. He has been running non stop around the bark
structure for hours.
During the drive home my sister and
I brainstorm how to deal with the huge gap inside the
structure. I had wanted a three foot gap with a row of the
flame shaped, red sumac as focal point. Finally my brain
lets go of the what I wanted and can’t have and I envision a
circle of sumac with radiating saplings and pine needles.
Next morning in bare light finds me gathering
saplings, loading the rest of the pine needles and more tools for
assembly.
I have a new crew of helpers for this day, all over
70 years of age. We are to meet at 10 am in the gallery.
Unfortunately there is a tractor trailer wreck and I don’t
arrive until noon. I am also a wreck. This is too big a
push. I want more time. This is supposed to be fun. I’ve
already had a hissy fit in the truck. But my crew is ready
to work. One is a 78 year old retired radiologist whom I
have never met before. He had read in the paper of my on
site installation and called and offered his help. He is
terrific and we all problem solve and construct during this
long day. I set the two men to staple a stiff covering of
tyvek over the frames of the exposed area and then have them
bend 3/4" conduit into one big and one smaller circle to be
attached onto the tyvek. Now comes the not so well thought
out part. We staple bird netting at the bottom and then
lash some saplings cut to length to fit over the netting,
but tied onto the conduit in a radiating pattern. Easier
said than done. Perhaps this should be the title of my next
show. The bird netting catches on all buttons and rough
boards and is nearly impossible to find the opening between
the frame and inner part of the netting where we will stuff
pine needles.
We manage. Time is short. I really would like more
radiating sticks. Perhaps if I like this configuration, I
can prefab this part in the future. But I really enjoy the
on site construction. It’s a bird building it’s nest, a
beaver it’s lodge. They don’t prefabricate at a more
conducive location, but they also have the time it takes.
They also know where they are going, having done it before.
We stuff pine needles between netting and tyvek and
work our way up the wall. At the end we are again standing on
the do-not-stand-on top rung. Now for the treat. Something
that I envisioned goes just as planned. I drag over three
huge bags of sumac seed stalks I have collected this past
December. In the winter they flame in the sun, as bright as
a cardinal and I want some color to counteract the grays and
browns.
We stick the ends of the stalks through the bird
netting and into the pine needles underneath and create a three foot
diameter mandala. But it all seems too dark until I get an
even taller ladder and aim some lights on them. The whole
thing lights up.
Then I struggle with the arch over the portal and by
8 PM the gallery is cleared of all leftover bags of pine needles,
boxes of tools. The floor is swept and vacuumed and I thank
everyone profusely and ask them to go home. I sit in the
quiet room with my creation.
As a child I used to make little houses in the
woods, collecting dead branches and lashing them together. I made
little tables of lashed twigs, bark plates, arrangements of
moss and this and that gleaned from the forest. I’m not
really doing anything that different now. I’m that child
come full circle. I love making homes, niches for me and
whatever spirits wish to inhabit them. My hand made pole
house is built on ten locust trees I cut down on our
property. The trees soar up through my house, difficult to
build around, but that’s what I did. My front door has a
carved oak frame. The dining and coffee tables are built of
curving wild cherry. My closet handles are honeysuckle. I
was born to make hobbit houses.
January 4. The day of the opening. I wish I
could sleep late, but I’m up at the crack of dawn. There’s
been so much to do for so long, that I’m in permanent rev
mode. My eyes ache, my head is fuzzy from too little sleep
and too much thinking. At least today I can drive our cushy
car down with no more than food for the opening which I
still must make. Luckily a friend rides down with me to
help at the opening and she takes some of my mind off this
all consuming project. I cannot get away from the thought
of future installations, future portals in my conversations
with nature.
The stage is set. Openings at McGuffy are always
packed with hundreds of people. At the beginning almost everyone
is out in the halls where more work is hung, where there is
food and wine. I stand in the nearly empty gallery. People
there don’t even know I made the work. I should have worn a
grass skirt or something. My self doubt kicks in for a few
minutes. I am just a kid making a tree fort. But soon the
room fills. People are confronted by the massiveness of my
Bark Shrine and a look of kid-at-Disney Land comes over
them. They are entering the enchanted forest of their
childhood. Just the shere size of the bark thrills them.
The smell of the room is of forest floor and pine grove. I
have used loblolly pine needles because they are longer than
white pine and it was a loblolly grove that had the least
debris from other trees . As I looked up how to spell
loblolly in my tree book the guide said that loblolly
needles are very aromatic.
So the sight and smell hit the gallery goers. It is
delightful, a treat to be able to walk into a sculpture. A
man comes up to me and says “total score.” An artist’s 12
year old daughter dreams of a whole village of round bark
houses. I devour everyone’s reactions. This is part of the
reward for my long hours of work and sweat. Next morning as
Carl and I laze in bed Carl says,“Now I see what all the
sheer drudgery was for. It really is cool.” Even with my
doubts, all along I knew where I was heading. A path in the
forest opens on a little hilltop glen and there sits my Big
Bark Temple.