Sunday, January 13, 2013

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Going with the Grain

Tree ring print by Bryan Nash Gill
From Woodcut by Bryan Nash Gill
Published 2012 by Princeton Architectural Press
Everywhere you look, people are going with the grain -- wood grain, that is.

You'll find such patterns everywhere -- on fabrics, wall coverings, wedding and baby shower invitations, iPhone covers, lamp shades and even stitched onto pillows and leather wallets. The list is endless.

It's all part of a movement known as eco-chic -- bringing the outdoors in, whether it's in a rustic, retro or modern sophisticated way. BrandWave, which forecasts global design and branding trends, issued an alert on wood grain in November. And even Michael's, the arts and craft store, mentioned wood grain in its recent press release about 2013 trends.

I've always been a bit cynical about trends -- here today, gone tomorrow -- but I have to admit I have long been fascinated with wood grain. If every picture tells a story, then every piece of wood tells the history of the tree from which it came. Each image is as unique as a fingerprint.

Tree rings, for example, can indicate the amount of rain, the temperature, soil pH, nutrition and carbon dioxide concentration, to name only a few factors. There’s even a name for the study of tree-ring dating – dendrochronology – and a laboratory of tree-ring research at the University of Arizona. But that's the gardener in me talking.

Scientists, of course, aren’t the only ones concerned with wood grain. Artists and craftsmen have long used it in their work. My late father turned wood in his workshop on nights and weekends when I was growing up, making gavels, bowls and vases. Each was a delight to behold.

Perhaps the best (and strangest) merger of art and science came in 2011 when Bartholomaus Traubeck of Germany figured out a way to "play" wood cross sections on a record player. Check it out here. Sounds a bit chaotic, not unlike Nature itself. 

Me, I’ll stick with something a bit more traditional -- prints taken from tree cross sections.  An exhibit of 31 original prints by artist Bryan Nash Gill will open Saturday, Jan. 19 at the Chicago Botanic Garden and run through April 14.

Gill published a book of his prints, Woodcut, in April last year to a very favorable review in the New York Times. His work has been displayed worldwide, although this will be his first Midwest show.

Most of his prints are made using cross-sections of wood salvaged near his home in New Hartford, Connecticut. This exhibit, though, will include the print English Oak made from a tree at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The tree was one of a pair along a back road near the Dixon Prairie. It had to be removed when the two trees started to grow into each other, diminishing the health of both. (The remaining tree has since returned to full health.)

The exhibit will include three custom benches made from an ash tree at the Chicago Botanic Garden that was removed after being infected with Emerald Ash Borer. There also will be a video of Gill at work. He sands and burns the wood, then makes the print by carefully pressing paper down on the individual ridges. Each print is made by hand, so each is slightly different.
BCBG MaxAzria wood print dress
Of course, there's always the question of what to wear to such an event. I thought about wearing this. Or maybe a dress (left) worn by reality star Toya Wright at a birthday party last fall.

On second thought, maybe I'll just stick to  jeans and a plain sweater.

As someone who has added 12 trees over the past five years, I hope all this hoopla about wood grain will have a positive effect. May it inspire people to go out and plant a tree. Or at least go out and hug one.

By Karen Geisler


  1. Not sure I like trends but if this one helps get people interested in trees especially as you say planting them, then I love it!!

  2. Hugging trees--now I can do that! Not crazy about the dress, but it is interesting. Trends are fun and educational, anyway. ;-)

  3. Interesting information. I enjoy the detail as to what makes my world tick.

  4. If you look closely at our new urban art collection you'll see elements of design made popular by street art.