Silva Cascadia: Under the Spell of the Forest

Saturday, February 24, 2024 1:34 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

Silva Cascadia: Under the Spell of the Forest

Museum of Northwest Art • La Conner, Washington

Forests and the trees that populate them are the inspiration for generations of artists across the world. In “Silva Cascadia: Under the Spell of the Forest,” curator Kathleen Garrett and the twelve artists included in the show explore the various perspectives provided by the forest. Garrett summarizes these views as aesthetic, forensic, metaphorical, and ecological. In summary, the exhibition offers both a holistic and in-depth view of how we are impacted by the forest and the lessons humanity can glean from how trees live (and die). The exhibition is specific to the Pacific Northwest, as the title tells us, but its lessons carry over to forests across the world. However, the show is uniquely rooted in the ecology of this region, as are the artists included. Through their observations, research, and experiences, each of the artists illustrate many of the quiet moments of reflection spent in these environments.

“Silva Cascadia” includes the work of twelve female artists: Maria Cristalli, Linda Davidson, Kathleen Faulkner, Patty Haller, Laura Hamje, Hart James, Claire Johnson, Donna Leavitt, Karen Lené Rudd, Juliet Shen, Kimberly Trowbridge, and Suze Woolf. The show is expertly organized by Kathleen Garrett, a long-standing and beloved curator based in the Pacific Northwest. The show exhibits the hallmarks of Garrett’s curatorial body of work: a thoughtfully considered and researched exhibition filled with artwork that speaks to the curator’s experience as a researcher and writer of art. It is thrilling to see an exhibition curated by Garrett at MoNA (she was their curator in the past) as she expertly and confidently guides the visitor through aesthetic, forensic, metaphorical, and ecological comparisons and contrasts. Hopefully this is the start of even more exhibitions curated by this long-standing Northwest curator.

All of the work in the exhibit connects to the overall theme of the show and is beautiful from both an aesthetic and technical perspective. What is particularly fascinating are three facets of the exhibit: the choice of sculpture, the juxtaposition of living trees and those impacted by fire, and the metaphorical connection of the “Mother Tree.” First, let’s review the two sculptors included in the exhibition: Karen Lené Rudd and Maria Cristalli. Rudd utilizes the often discarded cardboard box to recreate tree stumps to comment on the over-consumption and deforestation of these living organisms. These cardboard constructions are exhibited alongside Cristalli’s forged steel sculptures. There is something poetic and symbolic about the juxtaposition of a cardboard sculpture of a tree stump with a steel sculpture forged in fire and heat. In fact, one of Cristalli’s sculptures is titled “History of Fire.” Using exhibition design and dramatic lighting, Garrett calls our attention to the themes of construction, fire, and regeneration.

The exhibition comments on fire and trees again through more representational methods in Suze Woolf’s detailed documentation of trees damaged by wildfire. Utilizing varnished watercolor on torn paper mounted on wood, Woolf captures the impacted forests with incredible precision while also highlighting their ghostly beauty using color and shadow. These artworks are often in the same field of vision as Patty Haller, Hart James, and Laura Hamje’s luscious paintings that explore the layers of the forest in varying degrees of abstraction. James almost cuts through the layers to reveal the inner workings of the vegetation, while Hamje provides the viewer with a perspective from the forest floor through the canopy of the trees above. As living organisms, dead from fire, or somewhere in between, these majestic figures of the forests continue to tell both a cautionary tale and a lesson of beauty.

Another through-line in the exhibition is humanizing the tree and making connections to the concept of a “Mother Tree.” The gallery guide examines this metaphorical perspective quite well and articulates that the “Mother Tree” is often the largest tree in the forest with a vast network of fungi that is used to communicate with the surrounding trees so they can pass critical resources and information throughout the forest. According to the guide, this concept is central to Suzanne Simard’s research and her on-going project titled “The Mother Tree Project.” These trees are strong, old, and critical for a healthy forest to flourish. Fittingly, museum guests are greeted by three such trees in Kimberly Trowbridge’s large  paintings near the entrance of the exhibition. In her statement for the show, Trowbridge states that “trees epitomize the great lessons of figure-ground: how to embody self while also dissolving the boundaries between self and environment.” For the purposes of the metaphors within the “Mother Tree” concept, these trees extend beyond themselves to provide enrichment, comfort, and support to those around them. Similarly, Kathleen Faulkner writes that “the tree community is always available to protect, warn, feed, and heal its family. Trees understand the concept of teamwork.” Perhaps this is the most important lesson from the exhibition.

Chloé Dye Sherpe

Chloé Dye Sherpe is a curator and art professional based in Washington State.

“Silva Cascadia: Under the Spell of the Forest” is on view through May 12, at the Museum of Northwest Art, located at 121 South First Street. Museum hours are Sunday and Monday from 12 to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. For further information, visit

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