Collaborating with an Abert

Coconino Center for the Arts, 2013

Dimensions: 8' Diameter x 20" H

Materials: Ponderosa pine sticks, wood, cast rubber

Sitting by our campfire near Payette Lake in Idaho on the morning of August 4, 2013, my solitude was disrupted by the sound of pops coming from the campsite next to us. At first, I thought it was the morning sun warming the wood of an old Doug fir, but then I realized it was a chattering tree squirrel eating in the top branches, and dropping tight, green pine cones onto the roof of a nearby RV. I put down Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby and began collecting these sap covered pine cones to create my sculpture, Breakfast with a Tree Squirrel.

Walking through the forest in the spring of 1999, I noticed white ponderosa pine sticks lying on the forest floor. Squirrel sticks, or as biologists call them, peeled twigs, are the sticks that Abert squirrels drop as litter to the ground from ponderosa pine trees as they eat. The squirrels will chew off a twig and then, like eating corn on the cob, will clean off the outer bark to get to the sugary cambium layer. For ten years, each spring, I collected hundreds of thousands of these to create this sculpture. They remind me of bones. Other people have wanted to help collect them for me as well. I'm not sure they have the stamina to add to my collection. Unbeknownest to me, my friend, the artist Mike Frick, was collecting squirrel sticks in 2000. He created a beautiful sculpture with his. Another artist, Helen Padilla collects beautiful wood knots from trees burned by forest fires. I have a friend in Halibut Cove, Alaska, who collects human skulls she finds washed up on the beach. She had five of them when I visited her. The best lunch I have ever eaten was the fresh dandelion greens and mussels we had just collected outside her front door. Another artist friend collects his fingernails each time he clips them, and saves the lint from his belly button. He once made a beautiful basket from the rubber tire shreds he collected along the freeway, and then filled it with the butterfly wings collected from the automobile grills.

What makes artists collect? And collect what they do? When I was teaching, I could always tell the true artist from the other students I taught just by walking into their work space and seeing if they were collectors or not. The professor who got me into grad school once found a deformed and flattened clothes hanger in the road. He took it home and it became the subject of a series of paintings he did.