I have been drawing since childhood – mountains, deserts, freeways, bridges, myself – and these days I mainly use my sketches as foundations for large watercolors. I never use photographs, which are a completely different language.
I began working with Utah Junipers and Bristlecones in the early 1980s, when we lived in Southern Utah. The trees in "Learning to Lean" grow above the Patriarch Grove in the White Mountains of California, the high, arid range East of the Sierra Nevada. I wandered up a dolomite hill until, at an elevation of 11,500 feet, I saw these two trees, and was struck by the loving way the alive one held the dead one.
Back in my studio, trying to reproduce the picture in ink, I realized that there was something wrong with my original pencil sketch. The angles of the trunks were wrong. The picture would not speak. I could not fix the problem. So I returned the following summer, remembering my exact route, sat down six feet to the right of where I had sat the first time, and drew the picture correctly. I love to be in the mountains, where I feel safer and happier than anywhere else. It is important for me to sit among the trees for hours, to breathe the thin air, to feel the cold wind, to hear it play songs through the foliage.
I hope to convey, through my designs, the strength of these Bristlecone Pines, who started life 3,000 or 5,000 years ago, and have endured vast changes in climate, groves moving from desert floor during the Ice Ages, to their present high altitudes and, perhaps in the far future, back down.
Artist's Statement My drawings in this show are of three species of long-lived, slow-growing pine trees that grace the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. These impressions of a tree's geometric form reveal how it grows and where, how brutal and cold the wind is, and how many thousands of years the tree has been alive – or dead. America's most compelling botanical illustrators are artists first, and scientists second. I have been influenced by Paul Landacre's wood engravings of Western trees.
I follow no trail. I carry a pack containing a 9" x 12" hard-backed sketchbook, Micron pens, soft 6-B or 7-B pencils, a small can of fixative, and a folding chair. A sketch might take an hour or two, and before leaving I write down the route I followed at or above timberline. I take detailed notes about the sketch: values, design, and emotion. I make the finished version in my studio, using India ink on 300-pound rough-textured watercolor paper. One drawing uses 10 or 15 different pen nibs, and occasionally a paintbrush.
Sidebar: April 6 May 18 Exhibit
Valerie Cohen: “Tree Lines” black and white tree art. Valerie Cohen’s exhibition Tree Lines corresponds with a forthcoming publication of the same name by Valerie and Michael P. Cohen from University of Nevada, Press. This exhibition presents pen and ink line drawings of pine trees growing at or near the timberline in the Sierra Nevada and White Mountain Ranges of Eastern California. Sheppard Contemporary, Church Fine Arts. (775) 784-4278.