Bunny Bowen’s new work at Wild Hearts Gallery in Placitas has taken a turn for the worse. That is to say that her work is about the trees of the West, specifically the trees in Placitas, that have taken a turn for the worse. The deteriorating conditions of forests have had an impact on Bowen, whose lengthy artistic career has tended to produce work that is gentler and more traditional in form. It was discovering the beauty of the intricate patterns left by insect infestations that have ravaged Southwestern forests that both inspired and saddened her. Out of the long tradition in the art world of finding beauty in death, Bowen offers her contribution in the form of the trees from Placitas, N.M.
Bowen’s exhibit Ask the Trees provides trees to ask. Written into every piece is the history of the life and death of that specific tree, accentuated by the artist and repurposed through oil, paint and wax to ask larger questions about our ecological future. Weekly Alibi spoke with Bunny Bowen about her new work, how the forests have changed over the decades and a little bit about hope. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: You’ve said this work is really based on an idea, not a medium. What is the idea?
Bunny Bowen: We’ve lived in Placitas since 1975 and during that time, we’ve begun to see trees dying, particularly the pinons all over Placitas, all over the Southwest eventually. Then it began in the Sandias. When you went to the crest, you saw dead trees. Then there was the horrible fire, Las Conchas, which we could see from here. It’s 30 miles, as the crow flies. We could watch it go along the ridge. Then the Los Alamos fire before that in 2000. And the Yellowstone fire in the late-’80s—the really bad one where we had our skies full of smoke. It really goes back a long way.
The real impetus was last summer when we did a road trip to Whidbey Island [in Puget Sound, north of Seattle, Wash.]. All along the way we stopped in national forests and we stopped in national parks. There was smoke and there was fire. Everybody was having a heatwave with higher than average temperatures. We saw a lot of dead forests between here and there. Canada was burning. Montana. Washington. Oregon. All of them had forest fires. Even Colorado had one. It was just realizing firsthand, seeing what we’ve been losing.
Were you drawn specifically to the trees, the bark and the beetles, or were you looking for a way to express your thoughts on the conditions you were seeing?
I think it all just comes together. You never really know how things configure in your head.
Are all of the pieces in this series sourced locally?
Yes. We bought them as latillas for our coyote fence about 20 years ago.
So, they were just in the yard?
I realized the bark was falling off. Well, look why [she shows me the beetle galleries]. I had a forester neighbor and asked her, “We just put this fence up. Is it going to be bad for our ponderosas?” She said, “Yeah, I’ll give you something to spray.” That was years ago. Then the fence blew down in the wind last spring. I began cleaning that up and I figured I should take the bark off if we were going to reuse them. Some of them are just so amazing that I couldn’t make a fence again.
Tell me about the process you used.
The first thing I have to do is debark them. Then I have to steam them to make sure there is nothing growing.
Using the custom steamer that your husband built?
Yes. These were seven feet originally, so I cut them down to different sizes. After they were steamed, I cleaned them up, sanded them, used dental picks to clean out the sawdust called “frass.” Then I did various things, like sometimes I oiled them first. Most of these are finished out with Shiva paint sticks.
How does this differ from your other work?
[Usually] I do Japanese batik called rozome.
What do you hope that people seeing this work will think?
I just got through reading a book by Barry Lopez, Horizon. He is an environmental writer. He has a lot to say about what is happening with the environment—the melting of the Arctic, the glaciers melting which we saw in Glacier National Park last summer, the massive forest die-offs, ocean degradation—and he said, “You can tell people about all this, but it’s wrong to leave them without hope.”