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Woodcut: A Meditation on Time Through the Inked Cross-Sections of Fallen Trees

Bryan Nash Gill’s visual record of the passage of time.

Trees have a way of witnessing the world that stirs our deepest sense of permanence and impermanence. Somewhere between Cedric Pollet’s Bark and Romeyn Houghs’s cross-section plates comes Bryan Nash Gill’s Woodcut (public library) — a magnificent collection of the artist’s large-scale relief prints from the cross-sections of fallen and damaged trees.

Gills’ ink prints — sometimes stark, sometimes nuanced, always exquisitely beautiful — provide another, at once more abstract and more organic, way to visualize time, his labor-intensive printmaking process mirroring the patience imprinted on the trees’ arboreal rings. Looking at the cross-sections from above, inverting one’s usual orientation relative to a tree, kindles a kind of transcendental awe at these radial life records.

Ash, 2003
82 years printed
Red Ash, 2007
82 years printed
Double Crescent, 2009
Norway spruce
45 years printed
Black Locust with Bark, 2009
87 years printed
Honey Locust, 2010
31 years printed
Eastern Red Cedar, 2011
77 years printed
Glue Lam, 2003
One of Gill’s first prints created from dimensional lumber. Glued laminated timber is known for its superior structural strength and used in columns and beams. This print, revealing the grain patterns of glued lumber, is made from two boards stacked and rotated.
Gill at work, inking the block and printing (pressing the rings) of Eastern Red Cedar

Nature writer Verlyn Klinkenborg observes in the foreword:

Something [happens] as you peer into these boles. They confound time, simultaneously offering diachrony and synchrony, to use those nearly antiquated words. You look across all of the tree’s living years, exposed at one. And yet, as you move from the center to the periphery — to the final present of that individual tree — you’re also looking along time, along the succession of growth cycles that end in what is, after all, the death mask of a plant, the sustained rigor mortis of a maple, ash, spruce, locust, and other species.

Beautiful and quietly poetic, Woodcut is an absolute treat both aesthetically and conceptually, pulling you into a deeper contemplation of the passage of time as it sweeps you up in a meditation on beauty.

Captioned images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press / Bryan Nash Gill


On Scientific Taste

“Our taste derives from the summation of all that we have learnt from others, experienced and thought.”

Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge’s 1957 gem The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library | public domain) is the gift that keeps on giving. After Beveridge’s florilegium of insights on the role of serendipity and chance-opportunism and intuition and the imagination in creativity and scientific discovery, here comes a brilliant meditation on the notion of “scientific taste,” extending, as the rest of the book does, beyond science and into creative culture in general:

Taste can perhaps best be described as a sense of beauty or aesthetic sensibility, and it may be reliable or not, depending on the individual. Anyone who has it simply feels in his mind that a particular line of work is of interest for its own sake and worth following, perhaps without knowing why. How reliable one’s feelings are can be determined only by the results. The concept of scientific taste may be explained in another way by saying that the person who possesses the flair for choosing profitable lines of investigation is able to see further whither the work is leading than are other people, because he has the habit of using his imagination to look far ahead instead of restricting his thinking to established knowledge and the immediate problem. He may not be able to state explicitly his reasons or envisage any particular hypothesis, for he may see only vague hints that it leads towards one or another of several crucial questions.

Art by Lauren Redniss from Radioactive, an illustrated celebration of Marie Curie’s life and legacy

Taste, Beveridge argues, is a kind of intuition both hard-wired and honed through the practice of one’s craft:

An illustration of taste in non-scientific matters is the choice of words and composition of sentences when writing. Only occasionally is it necessary to check the correctness of the language used by submitting it to grammatical analysis; usually we just ‘feel’ that the sentence is correct or not. The elegance and aptness of the English which is produced largely automatically is a function of the taste we have acquired by training in choice and arrangement of words. In research, taste plays an important part in choosing profitable subjects for investigation, in recognising promising clues, in intuition, in deciding on a course of action where there are few facts with which to reason, in discarding hypotheses that require too many modifications and in forming an opinion on new discoveries before the evidence is decisive.

Although, as with other tastes, people may be endowed with the capacity for scientific taste to varying degrees, it may also be cultivated by training oneself in the appreciation of science, as, for example, in reading about how discoveries have been made. As with other tastes, taste in science will only be found in people with a genuine love of science. Our taste derives from the summation of all that we have learnt from others, experienced and thought.

This last bit, speaking to the combinatorial nature of creativity, is something we’ve heard many times before — from artists, designers, and writers, or the loosely defined “creative world.” So it is especially thrilling to also hear it from a scientist, revealing the same fundamental framework of ideation and thus blurring the unnecessary cultural line between the “rational” or “practical” disciplines, like science, technology, and engineering, and the “creative” ones, like art, design, and literature. To create, after all, is to contribute to the world with “taste,” integrity, and passion for what you do, no matter what your field of mastery.


Henri Matisse’s Rare 1935 Etchings for James Joyce’s Ulysses

A 22-karat creative cross-pollination.

Bloomsday — the world’s foremost holiday of talking about books you haven’t read — may come and go, but a rare gem calls for extending the Joyce-related celebrations a little while longer. In 1935, American publisher George Macey offered the great Henri Matisse $5,000 to create as many etchings as this budget would afford for a special illustrated edition of Ulysses. Joyce was thrilled that an artist of Matisse’s stature would illustrate his masterwork, but worried the artist might not actually read the book, which confounded even Carl Jung. His fears were justified — Matisse turned in drawings based on six episodes from Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, evidently having assumed that Joyce’s masterwork was also based on the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, known as Ulysses in Roman mythology.

After Open Culture flagged the book, I gathered up my year’s worth of lunch money and was able to grab one of the last copies available online — a glorious leather-bound tome with 22-karat gold accents, gilt edges, moire fabric endpapers, and a satin page marker. The Matisse drawings inside it, of course, are the most priceless of its offerings — doubly so because, for all their beauty, they’re a tragicomedy of quasi-collaboration. Enjoy.

Complement this rare and unusual edition with Salvador Dalí’s little-known Alice in Wonderland illustrations.


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