Meet Birgitta Volz, an Aurovillean artist who experiments with tree bark to print abstract pieces of art

In 1996, when German visual artist Birgitta Volz was dabbling with wood printing and tree bark printing, she felt particularly attracted to a rather “unspectacular” willow (Salix caprea) tree. She immediately started working on a large, abstract composition as the tree’s bark patterns were not uniform. But owing to strong winds, she had to give up. A few days later, when she looked at the result, she was shocked — “My composition looked like a life-size witch!”

Incidentally, Volz found out that in the Alps, there is a mention of a character ‘the white woman or salic woman’ who is referred to as the changing spirit of the willow. This was the start to a long and eye-opening journey with bark printing for the artist, who moved to Auroville in 2005.

The technique involves applying organic colour onto tree bark, and superimposing it with paper or fabric, to receive prints that mimic patterns seen on the outer skin of the bark. The artist, who has 100 solo shows and over 200 group shows across 20 countries to her credit, is currently showing a collection of bark prints in an exhibition titled Temple Tree at the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture International Zone, Auroville.

“I have always loved wood prints and slowly learned to take prints from uneven and huge wooden planks, where one can’t use a press. I even did my own wooden sculptures and printed them. Then in 1994, I printed a piece of fresh bark for the first time and to my surprise, it worked,” says Volz. She has not looked back since. “The tree gets a good cleaning with a brush before I apply a thin layer of organic oil colour on the outer skin. Then I pin paper or fabric on it, and rub the colour through, with soft pressure,” Volz explains, adding that the technique is completely harmless to the tree, since there are no chemicals or solvents involved.

The prints are left to dry overnight. While most prints may seem abstract, some patterns give way to figures that arise naturally. “I never manipulate the tree. The print making is like meditation in motion. I rarely see images on the bark; all I control is the composition. Figures become visible only later in the studio. I sometimes draw or paint around what I discover, to make them perceptible,” Volz adds.

A view of the exhibition

In her current exhibition, the focus is on prints from a tree located next to the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture. When she started working on this tree, she had a “vague feeling that [the Hindu god] Ganesha would show up”. And, so half of the prints feature abstract manifestations of Ganesha.

A tree, says Volz, says a lot about the environment it is in. “It seems as if the trees record the history of their place, and of its ‘clandestine’ inhabitants,” she adds. For instance, a couple of years ago, she had printed a 3,000-year-old baobab tree that led her to a lot of stories surrounding African culture. She has also been to Bangladesh to print one of the walls of an old palace.

By May, the artist plans to move most of her prints to Germany, since the climate in Auroville is not ideal for the paper.

Temple Tree will be on view till March 2.

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