The gray area: a conversation with artist Renee Couture

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A Q&A with Renee Couture follows this introduction.

Forestry, as a science, is both tangible and abstract. Behind the flagging and cores and calipers is the weighing of value, the ecological against the material, the measurable against the immeasurable. Such tensions are reflected in artist Renee Couture's collection Where do we go from here? The foundation of each piece in the series is a 1930s timber tally, or "cruise card," which she acquired at the Bureau of Land Management office in Roseburg, Ore., where she lives. Couture layers the cards with fanciful couplings of old sketches and photographs: An antlered woman leaning over a chessboard; men loading a log onto a railcar; a centaur -- part bear, part ungulate -- with morels springing from its back.

The sum of these tactile parts is elusive, like the answer to the works' title. After all, Where do we go from here? is a rhetorical question, inspired by Couture's own encounters with the conflict over forest management in southwest Oregon. In 2004, she moved to Roseburg knowing little about its timber legacy. (Roseburg Forest Products, one of the largest privately owned wood producers in the United States, is based there.) By then, the timber boom had long since passed, and the clashes that followed the boom -- most divisively over the northern spotted owl -- had fallen bitterly quiet (see Seeking balance in Oregon's timber country, HCN 04/29/13). The collection is a long time coming for Couture as she unpacks her years in Oregon in "an attempt at making sense of a history from which I was absent." In turn, it is an attempt to understand her place in the story.

That place, she believes, is not to answer, but to provoke. She sees her work as a borrowing from the timber conflict's usual actors. "I love work that is beautiful at first and then somewhat subversive," she says. "Work that, through your curiosity and examination, (makes) you start questioning where you stand -- that perhaps it isn't so black-and-white."

Couture recently discussed her perspective on forest management and how it shapes her work with HCN correspondent Sierra Crane-Murdoch.

High Country News: How did forestry become the focus of your work?

Renee Couture: When I moved to Oregon, I’d never really thought much about where wood came from. I never thought of the forest as a landscape that is managed, something that is very active. I would hear people talking about things I didn’t understand or had never seen—“One-log loads.”

HCN: What does that mean?

RC: It means that the tree is so big that only one log fits on the truck. I’ve never seen a one-log load. I remember one person said to me, “You weren’t here when the one-log loads were coming down from the hills every day, just truckloads and truckloads.”

I was trying to make sense of it all, of the past I never witnessed, and of the present emotions surrounding trees. Of course, in the Midwest, there’s this romantic idea of the harvest: The farmer harvesting the corn at sunset. That sort of romanticism doesn’t surround the timber harvest—at least it doesn’t seem to.

HCN: But in a way, that person was recalling a bygone time when there were truckloads of gigantic trees coming down from the hills. Isn’t that a little nostalgic?

RC: I think it could be nostalgic, and I think it could also be very critical of the practices during that period in time. I have old growth trees within walking distance of where I live. When I walk in that forest, I can certainly see why — the spotted owl and red tree voles aside — people would be very attached to those trees and the beauty of those places.

That is the thing with trees. They take so long to grow, and because they are around for so long, we do get attached to them.

HCN: There seems to be a duality in your looking back, in the way an environmentalist might idealize a time when the old growth was more intact, but also in the way a logger might remember when the industry was really booming. Was that intentional?

RC: Absolutely. The cruise cards came from a BLM-managed forest, from the late 1930s, and so I wanted to have older images to lie on top of them. People talk about the “good old days,” and it means a couple of different things depending on who’s saying it. It could be the days of high-volume timber coming off the landscape, of people being employed, but it could also be the “bad old days” of heavily managed lands.

HCN: Tell me about your process.

RC: I wanted to point out that what we often hear in this debate is dichotomy — a binary system of this or that, wild or managed. The conversation is very layered, since people have many reasons for thinking what they think. I knew I wanted to add layers to the cruise cards. For a while I thought of drawing on the cards, but I decided that I wanted a physical layer over top that had its own, different language. Some of the images have twenty or thirty layers. For every one you see, I created five. Then I selected the one that I thought did the job best. The process was very long and difficult.

HCN: Were there some that worked better than others?

RC: There are always some within any body of work that I love. Then there are a few where I’m just like, “What was I thinking?”

I love work that is beautiful at first, and then somewhat subversive — work that, through your curiosity and examination, you start questioning where you stand — that perhaps it isn’t so black and white. I don’t think that the woods should cease to be a working landscape. That’s not to say I think that the Pacific Northwest should be clear cut, but I hope that people will look at my work and think about the issue in a more complex way.

HCN: What about the barbed wire? This seems to be your most charged image.

RC: I used the barbed wire as a way to think about boundaries and barriers. There is a checkerboard landscape in Oregon, and I find it so curious how you can be standing on one piece of ground that’s managed in one way, and two feet to your left is ground that’s managed in a completely different way, by whatever means of decision making. This makes me wonder, are these boundaries physical or psychological?

HCN: Do you hope that people in Roseburg see your work and respond to it?

RC: I do. It’s a little nerve-wracking, because Roseburg is a very discerning population. A lot of people live with strong emotions about this issue. And in many ways, for a brief moment, I’m stealing the conversation away from the people who are always involved in it.

HCN: Have you found your place in the story?

RC: I think so. I think that the role of the artist can be many. But the role that I’ve chosen to take is to show what I see and what I hear, and think about why something is working or not working, and how it could work better.

I used to really freak out—I’d think, “This is my best idea! What if I never have an idea like this again?” Now I recognize that whatever questions are left unanswered in one work just lead to new work.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited for clarity by Sierra Crane-Murdoch.