Bound by Structure

By Jonah Ward

I’ve always been completely infatuated with natural, textured, paper-like materials I find outside. One in particular comes from the Madrone tree, also known as Arbutus, with its beautiful, sleek, rich orange-red bark that at the end of each summer peels off to expose a new, silvery-chic layer underneath. It’s so smooth, it’s like skin -- and when it gets saturated with rain the shiny surface of the tree looks like a tangle of naked arms and legs emerging from the forest floor.

As the bark peels off, it collects at the base of the tree like hundreds of tiny paper scrolls littered about. On the hottest days, when this is happening, you can actually hear the bark drying and peeling off of the trees, reminiscent of the sound of slow, crinkling paper. When I was younger, I used to help my mom collect bunches of these delicate pieces because when soaked in water, an ocher-colored dye is released that she would then use to stain her basket weaving material. After she was done soaking the bark, we’d pour it outside and I noticed how it transformed and became soft and pliable. I could then unravel the curled up “scrolls”, revealing some pieces almost as big as a sheet of paper.

Since then, I’ve been fascinated by Madrone bark and in the past few years have been thinking of ways to incorporate it into my artwork. I want it to be appreciated and highlighted as a piece of nature’s beauty. Something that just needs to be picked up off the ground, given a little time and energy to turn it into something that people have never seen before, or at least arranged and displayed in a new, unseen way. I have started to cut and apply them onto wood canvases, completely covering the surface. By cutting the bark into rectangular pieces they become almost like swatches of color from a paintbrush, creating a painting-like form, but with a richness and depth only matched by other naturally occurring colors and materials.

This idea of making a painting or drawing using processes and/or materials that normally wouldn’t fall into that category is very important to me; to reinterpret the idea of a painting or drawing through the lens of my own artistic perspective. The final work represents an organization of seemingly chaotic content and situations, yet bound by a sense of structure, a common thread that has become prevalent in all of my work.

A close-up of the layered madrone bark.

A close-up of the layered madrone bark.