Vermont Arts Council

Sliding Into Tree Time

SiteTime : Cordwood was deliberately a slow-moving installation in the Council’s garden. SiteTime : Cordwood : Sharing is a new exhibit in the Spotlight Gallery comprising documentation, sketches, and artifacts highlighting that two-year process which was presented in four scenes. Erika Senft Miller expressed abstraction through her performances and costumes. Nancy Winship Milliken worked with the materiality of wood through sculpture and prints, and Michael Zebrowski chose to create and record the situations for the cordwood to change throughout the time span. When you visit, you’re invited to slide into something the makers of this work call “tree time.” Reflections by the artists explain.

Getting There

Nancy: Each of us came to this project from a different viewpoint and artistic language with the core material of cordwood as our mode of expressing site and time. There were several areas that we all worked on together, and others that we encouraged each other to explore on our own. We did not need bells and whistles, or to try to be clever with our interaction with each other for the four sections of our exhibition to come together. We learned what to expect from each other. And yet, we were always surprised by the ideas floated.

Michael: There were so many ideas, so many proposals for work, and so many realized ideas that our collaborative conversations created. For me it was very similar to handling the cordwood in heating my house. All logs were always touched more than once by more than one set of hands, all logs were given time to sit and transform, all logs eventually would serve their purpose and amount to some kind of change. I could interchange “log” with “idea” or “art work.”

Listen to the Trees

Nancy: The prints took a year to imprint, it took time to collect the data for the video. Performance was slowed down to micro movements, much like a tree. Tree time is different than human time.

Erika: Careful listening to the trees as well as the people whose work it is to make cordwood gave a structure and score to the performance installations. The movements were created in the group of performers through careful listening and understanding of the complex system we were moving in. Both our relationships to each other as well as to the actions of Nancy and Michael, who worked with the woodpiles during the performances, continuously informed the process. In addition, trees and the stages of making cordwood lent additional layers of meaning, figuratively relating to the work of the Arts Council as well as the creative process and art. The unforgiving reality of people working in the field, both in forests and in studios, as well as the science behind tree growth and breathing informed drawings, screen prints, costumes, and choreography.

Michael: As both artist and more generic human, living in Vermont is about being resourceful with every ounce of what you have and oftentimes it is sharing this struggle with your community members to help one another survive and thus thrive.

Unfolding in Phases

The first three events in the sculpture garden included work by members of Erika Miller Performance Lab.

Erika: The choreographic work for each phase/performance was developed in a nonhierarchical process of structured improvisation following the lead of nature’s nonhierarchical complex systems and careful listening to tree time.

Falling. Photo by Maxine Miller.

For the first phase, Slumping, we slowed down to align with tree time. No unnecessary movements–in order to reach an effortless alignment, reaching up and away from the ground, we need to connect deeply with the ground and yield to gravity. We breathed in communion with the honey locust trees on the courtyard of the Arts Council. Although separate and without eye contact, we felt connected, just like trees connect and create a complex system. Slumping was a meditation on tree time–nature can’t be rushed, only observed and joined.

I cut the Tyvek material for the costumes in Falling in diagonal lines with pinking shears to reflect the diagonal cuts of chainsaws in felling a tree. The Tyvek material was sewn only with zig-zag stitching and I chose the Tyvek in order to protect the performers from the brutal cold. Not performing in the harsh winter conditions wasn’t an option, just like people in the field need to show up for their work in snow and wind.

The third phase, Breathing, was an homage to our symbiotic relationship with trees. The tree’s exhale is our inhale and vice versa. I recorded a breathing meditation that I often teach in my work as Alexander Technique facilitator, and screen printed the words on our costumes. In the process of making cordwood, the phase after felling is limbing. Limbs get cut off the tree. It’s from the leaved limbs that the tree breathes, hence Breathing.

Nancy: For every performance event there was a utilitarian interaction with the cordwood. For example: the slump pile was built for the first phase. This happened simultaneously with Erika’s choreographed piece. For Breathing the slump pile was divided into four piles in another utilitarian task of moving wood with wheelbarrows while [the choreographed piece] was being performed. Tarps were put underneath the four piles to collect a print of the wood detritus. The seven level stacks were then made and this too had canvas underneath to collect a yearlong print of a stack of wood. Now we are all sharing the data collected throughout the two years, drawings, photos, sound, video. We are also sharing the wood through the “LOG : LOG.”

Visit. Breathe.

Michael: This is work that requires thinking, it isn’t purely visual. It asks the viewer to soak in the pieces and begin to make their own assertions. This required thought process is the key to a slow down.

Erika: I hope that many people will continue to tune in to tree time for a meditation on breath, site and time, remembering that nature, just like the creative process, can’t be rushed nor forced but observed and joined.

—about the Spotlight Gallery
—about the Sculpture Garden and the artists
—compiled by Susan McDowell

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