The sound of rain dripping off pine needles and the scent of wet dirt from the forest floor are familiar nostalgic reminders of a childhood spent largely outdoors for artist Leah Petersen. Having spent her early years growing up in the Pacific Northwest she has always enjoyed the outdoors best and feels most at home under a canopy of trees.
Leah is a nature artist who lives in the Sequoia National Forest of California and makes beautiful art using the stumps of reclaimed trees. Tree printing is a form of relief printing on archival paper with ink, using cross-sections of woodcuts or stumps from local trees. It’s a bit like preserving the fingerprint of a tree in that, the viewer can witness the history, age, and characteristics of each unique tree. It’s a mix of art and science, conservation, and fun. The work involves using tools like a steel and paintbrush, chainsaw, and a blowtorch.
“There is so much wood to be found in the forest, and it’s fun to look for interesting pieces that would be a great art print. It’s also a good excuse to get out and wander in the woods. No two trees have the same pattern, and I love to try and figure out how old a tree is by looking at the cross-section and wonder what I was doing when that tree began its life if I was even alive when it started growing. Many of these trees have been around much longer than me. It helps me think about history, and what my own parents or grandparents were doing at the time that the tree was growing. It’s also interesting to see growth patterns that represent years of abundant water and years of drought. ”Leah Petersen, Founder of Ink Wood and Fire
Leah’s interest in art started early in life with opportunities in high school to explore a broad range of mediums. She made her first sale of original artwork, a watercolor painting of a palm tree, to her high school art teacher for her classroom collection of student art. Her first experience with printing was carving a linocut, a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum is used for a relief surface. Following as an art major in college in Southern California, Leah continued to create with other media like colored pencil and watercolor. Her interest in making tree prints, however, has been a more recent process of discovery inspired by her husband, Brian. Brian, a photographer, and filmmaker came across photos of tree prints made by artist Bryan Nash Gill and encouraged Leah to make some prints. His encouragement and support are what launched her into her current work.
Modern tree printing preserves the visual history of the tree at the time it was cut or fallen, which could also help future generations learn about what was happening at the current moment in time perhaps informing our views on climate change.
Reclaimed wood as a source of tree printing provides second life to dead trees. Most trees used in her art have died from the bark beetle that devastated the region in recent years following seasons of drought. The beetle leaves its unique pattern in the dead tree along with blue streaks in local pines, like the great sugar pine. When these trees die near public or access roads they are often cut down for safety, and in some cases are shredded into wood chip piles. Leah gives life to these dead trees so they can be enjoyed for generations to come.
Leah builds on the history of past generations by documenting tree rings in the Sequoia region. Dendrochronologists like Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale and the National Park Service published their work of giant Sequoia tree rings following the great ecological disaster of the logging of the Giant Sequoias in the Converse Basin region around 1911. Tree rings visible on a stump at the time of Christ were measured and documented which showed growth patterns and climate change of millennia. Leah would love to be able to take prints of an old-growth Sequoia stump sometime in the future.
Taking something fallen and turning it into something beautiful is a meaningful process for Leah. “The beauty of a tree in the forest is obvious while the tree is growing and full of life, but once it dies and falls we don’t necessarily view it the same way. The beauty is still there, but we have to look at it from a different perspective to see it.” This idea has played out in Leah’s personal life, not just in her art. At the age of 34, Leah was widowed with 5 children, when her husband of 14 years passed away after a sudden, short battle with leukemia. Her husband Geoff was loved by all who knew him and his life and legacy have left a beautiful imprint on her heart and family.
Leah starts by exploring the forest for usable stumps from fallen logs or downed trees which are sometimes already cut by arborists or logging contractors. Her husband Brian usually joins her, using a pro chainsaw to cut a slab or cookie off the log which helps reduce the size of the stumps that are then tossed in a truck and air-dried.
A belt sander or hand planer is then used to get the surfaces even as possible, and then a rotary sander with a finer grit touches up the stump to prepare for burning and printing.
“Burning wood is my favorite part of the process, and it’s so satisfying to see the colors of the stumps change in color from raw wood to black. It’s also a personal reminder to me of how beauty can be born from ashes. In metalworking, fire is used to burn up impurities in the metal, resulting in a pure, beautiful product of great value. There’s something similar happening in my art-making process. Fire can devastate and consume but it can also refine and transform. The process of losing my husband to cancer, grieving him, and starting over in life from a place of profound loss is definitely a beauty from ashes experience in my life. By God’s grace and ever-present help in my life, my trial through fire, though extremely painful and something I did not choose, didn’t consume me but changed me and changed how I interact with relationships and circumstances going forward. And much of the beauty that I experience today has come through finding love again and the joy that I have in my friendship and marriage to my husband Brian. I was deeply loved by my first husband and now to be so deeply loved again by Brian is life-giving. I don’t think that God wastes anything, even our pain, because He is a God of redemption, and I don’t want to waste anything I’ve been given. I see my art as an extension of that principle.”Leah Petersen, Founder of Ink Wood and Fire
Leah uses a propane blow torch to burn the wood starting in the middle and then to the bark edges. It’s a fun process. As the fire scorches the stump, the wood dries out and cracks start appearing as tree rings become more clear.
She removes the soot and uses a wire brush or stiff round brush to scrape until all the soft wood is removed. Each year of growth has two distinct growing seasons: spring and summer.
In the spring, trees take advantage of all the moisture in the soil and conduct large capacities of sap. This wood growth is called earlywood and it’s much softer than the summer growth, called late wood. The early wood burns away much faster than the latewood. Less moisture in the summer thickens the cell walls and causes less moisture movement throughout the tree so this growth is much harder. The burning process results in the surface of the stump having little hills and valleys.
Leah then inks the stump with relief ink. The higher “hills” are where the ink rests and they are the portion of the rings that are imprinted onto the paper. She is constantly experimenting with inks and paper and uses archival paper to center the print on the stump to make the print. The art is left to air dry in her studio or outside depending on the weather.
Sharing Leah’s Tree Prints
“I love creating art in the forest and it’s a joy to be able to share the beauty of creation with others.”Leah Petersen, Founder of Ink Wood and Fire
Leah’s work is published with her business name, Ink Wood and Fire, named for the unique artistic process used in creating art. “Pencils are made of wood, paper is made of wood, the desk I work at is made of wood, my house is made of wood, wood keeps me warm in the winter and I cook over it when I’m camping. Wood is all around me and is beautiful in all its forms and functions. It’s a resource that keeps on giving if we steward it well.”