CSI: Special Forest Unit — Backroading artist documents clear-cuts with creative flare

By Tom Webb

Ryan Burns is not an everyday ambulance driver. He doesn’t scream down busy city streets, pick up accident victims and rush them away to the nearest hospital. He has no need for a siren, since his patients are, without exception, dead on arrival. He’s part Quincy, the county coroner, and part public provocateur, documenting the death of biodiversity in the backcountry of America’s national forests. You can call him a stump-rubber, or tree-impressionist, but you’d never be correct in describing him as an average landscape artist. Forest rangers can attest to that.

“They get real confused,” Burns says of the rangers who encounter him and his 1989 Ford ambulance as they travel the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest. “’Whatya’ doing? Did someone get hurt out here?’ they ask. And I’m like ‘No, I’m just looking for some clear-cuts.’”

A fresh cut mapped and found, Burns pulls out his materials—swaths of paper, a glue stick and a thick rubbing crayon—and gets to work on his latest patient. He finds the largest, freshest stump available. The papers are layered across the ringed behemoth and glued together to form a parent sheet. Sometimes he’ll have to saw off an errant snag so as to create a relatively clean, flat surface. Only then does the rubbing begin. As the pine pitch, bone-black pigment and of his crayon scurries across the stump, a new image is born from the recently department Douglas fir, Sitka spruce or Ponderosa pine. It’s like dusting for clues, and Burns knows that every stump has its own unique set of rings, its own fingerprint.

Back in his studio, Burns unrolls the rubbings, draws out the bark outlines and laminates the paper onto canvas, which in turn is stretched, slightly reworked and painted out to meet the artist’s eye. Color is incorporated into the work according to the shades of the found paper used. Once framed, the final specimens—upwards of 10 by 10 feet—can be sometimes too large to move out the door. The images are circular, haunting reminders of the newly departed—cross-cut sections of modern forestry.

“I’m hoping this work will create a more abstract context that will evoke interest in these issues that surround stabilizing old growth and compel a new audience whose sensibilities are perhaps less tuned into ecological responsibility,” Burns says from his gallery in New Orleans, Louisiana. “A lot of people don’t even think trees this big exist anymore.”

While Burns, 29, has enjoyed a healthy dose of wanderlust over the years, he has seemingly found a more stable home in New Orleans, a receptive and supportive and gallery and a curious audience in a part of where most all land is private and long since cleared. His works are selling, and a growing interest is focusing itself on the upstart Midwesterner-cum-Westerner turned Southerner.

“He’s an up and coming conceptual master in our midst,” wrote Doug MacGash, arts critic for the Gambit Weekly in New Orleans, in a 2004 artist profile. MacGash categorizes Burns’ work as “ecological illustration,” and adds, “They have a sort of ‘naturalistic minimalism quality’—if there is such a thing.”

Burns shows his rubbings sparingly in Oregon, Minneapolis and now at Barrister’s Gallery in New Orleans, where he’s been included in a number of group shows but has yet to hold fort with his own solo exhibition. Andy Antippas, Barrister’s Gallery owner and director, is eager to present the first Burns-only show and has slated one for September 2005.

In contrast to his more rotund subject matter, Burns himself is perpendicular in stature. A long, pointed goatee and crew-cut top his slender yet fit frame. He is hardly the gaunt, introspective artist but more the chiseled sculptor with the requisite pastiche of tattoos across his forearms.

Burns was born and raised in Cincinnati, before attending the Heron School of Art in Indianapolis for two years. There he lived in an abandoned building, which, he says, provided plenty of free plywood on which to paint. In the mid-1990s, he traveled west and lived, among other places, in a small, man-made structure near Zig Zag Falls in the Mount Hood National Forest, and in a downtown studio in Ashland, Oregon. In what appears to be a series of artist wanderings, Burns rode the rails for several years, traversing the Pacific coast corridor from Portland to Northern California. Four years ago, he left Minneapolis to escape the long winters and found his way to the Big Easy, where he has stationed himself ever since. The past two summers, he’s driven his ambulance back to the Pacific Northwest to continue his practice in tree rubbings, of which he now has over 40 large-scale works.

According to the artist, Burns’ interest in ecological issues goes back to his high school days. He cites Joseph Beuys and Rudolpf Steiner as two prominent artists who influenced his use of natural materials, as opposed to tar, his initial preference. Burns describes his first works as “surrealistic paintings about the destruction of the landscape.” From there, he moved into creating assemblage-type art boxes out of found and natural materials. And while he continued in his landscape paintings, he also created large wooden puzzle-piece works, commenting on trends in genetic engineering.

It was during his train-riding days that Burns first came upon the concept of tree rubbings. Having hopped a freighter heading to the Bay Area from Portland, he awoke in the night in the middle of the Mount Shasta Wilderness. A lumber car was behind the grainer. He climbed atop the lumber rack, pulled out his sketch book and rubbed the end of a finished two-by-four. “This is the product that is surrounding me,” he thought at the time. “Unfortunately, it’s still viewed as a product.” He still keeps that first rubbing as inspiration for future works. Burns has completed numerous tree rubbings in ecological and symbolically important sites, including ski expansion areas outside Ashland, the Grizzly Creek Timber sale in Northern California, the Tarzan, Jane and Batwing timber sales on Mount Hood, and the Winberry and Berry Patch sales near Eugene. At Grizzly Creek, he was able to document the tree that housed forest activist David Gypsy Chain, who was killed when a neighboring tree was felled under suspicious circumstances.

Burns credits the Portland group Bark for providing him with detailed maps of timber sales on Mount Hood, and the resource group SCRAP for offering high-quality found paper at affordable rates. He is selective of his paper choices and prefers old maps, blueprints, dinosaur coloring books and slightly decorative papers. The papers provide the color and additional graphic texture, and how they respond to the rubbings and to light over time is part of the artistic process. Furthermore, Burns is keenly focused on rubbing only recently cut stands, adding a sense of immediacy to each piece. Down the road, he would like to travel to capture the big trees in Alaska and the eucalyptus trees of Australia.

To repair his ambulance and return to the forests, Burns received a small grant from the Puffin Foundation in New Jersey. And while it didn’t cover all his costs, the grant was a boost and vote of confidence for his unorthodox approach.

“Even if you don’t agree with Burns’ ecological worldview, you have to admit there is a certain old-fashioned do-it-yourself brilliance in his methods,” wrote MacGash of Gambit Weekly.”

“When I came to New Orleans, it was so out of context in all aspects between here and Portland. And surprisingly people responded,” Burns says. He describes people’s attitudes in New Orleans toward environmentalism as stereotyped. “People come out and say, you know, ‘Environmentalists are all tree huggers.’ At the same time, they measure the success of Mardi Gras by weighing the garbage.”

Burns, the ambulance driver, has a practical and symbolic idea on how to turn New Orleans toward a more sustainable economy. In this part of the country, where ferry boats once shuttled supreme, Burns would like to see the Algiers Ferry, a now nostalgic route, run on bio-diesel generated from the waste of famous restaurants in the French Quarter. If his own ambulance can run through the forests on such fuels, you’d think a ferry could cross the Mississippi River with similar technology. Like his tree rubbings themselves, making something new again seems like the ultimate environmental statement. But when asked if these ideas and his tree rubbings themselves are more sheer brainstorms and less mastery, Burns is quick to respond: “That’s inspiring to me. I just made someone think…but, you know what, it’s not like an idea is like the lottery.”