Renee Couture, who lives in timber country in Oregon, is making art about forestry culture and the local battle about deforestation. She transplanted to Oregon from the Midwest, and when she got there was struck by how logging, and the history of logging was so present.
“This work is my attempt at making sense of a history from which I was absent,” she says.
Couture makes pieces that range from large-scale outdoor installation to drawings on hand-sized cards. The medium and the form changes, but she’s always trying to dissect the way we shape the environment and how it shapes us. In her latest project, “Where do we go from here,” she took the field cruise cards that loggers used to monitor forests in the 1930s and overlaid them with drawings, hinting at the tension between economics, culture, and the environment.
Where do you get your ideas?
Right after grad school I saw that the Douglas County library – where I was living in Oregon – was only open half the hours it had been previous years. The budget was tied to timber dollars, and those funds were getting cut. That’s where the whole “me looking at the landscape where I live” came from. That moment of recognizing that the library was only open 25 hours a week. The history of this place is so tied to natural resource extraction. I became really curious about getting to know that history.
So where do you start on a project like that?
My process depends on the project, but it’s always research based: I’m interviewing people and checking newspaper articles or books and movies. I try to come to an answer, some sort of position on the question. Sometimes I find an answer, sometimes I find another question. Then it’s figuring out how to visually represent those questions.
Then how does that research translate to art?
Visually, it all depends. I spend a lot of time thinking about what best serves the content. It could be sculptural, photographs, drawing, it’s whatever conveys it best. Sometimes the work takes on a life of its own. For instance, with “Where do we go from here,” initially I was just going to make 10 pieces, and it kept growing and grew to 24.
Where did you get the materials for that one?
I know some people who work at the Roseburg, Oregon, BLM, so they got me access to the cruise cards. I think that they’re so captivating. Even just on the level of just work and that implied work ethic of the individual. I think about them being out in the woods on a rainy day trying to calculate the value of the trees. You can see the hand of the worker through the marks that are being made. I love that they’re outdated technology. There’s a language that’s on there, it’s all things we recognize but in this context it’s all so foreign.
You said you start with a question, what are you trying to answer there?
I’m looking at how we value a place or a landscape. How do we quantify that? It’s such a tricky situation, so much of the conversation pits jobs against ecological integrity, but it’s not that black and white.
You can see the implied value in the cards, but within that environmental debate the flipside is the things that are more difficult to monetarily value, like wildflowers or recreation. Then there’s another side, which says that community wellbeing and jobs should be quantified by more than just the wage that a person has. That emotional side isn’t black and white at all. It’s gut wrenching, full color.
What do you want people to get out of seeing your work?
When you look at art, at first it’s visual, it’s beautiful or it’s ugly. I hope that people go deeper and ask themselves questions about where they stand. I try not to give my position. I don’t want to be, like, “I’m the artist and by golly I’m right.” I want people to think about how these wild and social landscapes can exist without things being overvalued or marginalized.
You’re not from Oregon originally. What draws you to logging history?
Growing up in the Midwest when I thought of the “woods” I didn’t think of forests as being something you could manage, I thought of campgrounds. I never thought if it as a working landscape, so I didn’t think about my relationship as a consumer. Wood came from the lumber store. That’s changed. I wasn’t in the West during the big timber days when it was all log trucks and one log loads coming down the road. I don’t have that baggage or that history that’s associated with it so I’m trying to make sense of a history I wasn’t a part of.
How do people who are locals take it? What’s it like showing it in your adopted hometown?
It’s really unnerving. I feel like I have to have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed. My first project about the library was shown in town, at the Douglas County Museum, the director was willing to have conceptual art shown in the natural history museum. He said that there was great feedback and that people were moved by the work and the information, which is great. I always put my head down at shows. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people about it, because I do, but I get nervous about the responses, even though I do want the response. It’s nerve wracking in a lot of ways because it’s you. It’s me in a 3-D form.
And what comes next?
I’ve been making wallpaper, but I’m also starting to look more broadly at the West. I’ve been getting into the tension between cattle ranchers and wolves, and our fascination with this creature that’s been so mythologized.
After my first big project I remember thinking ‘what if this is my only good idea?’ But upon finishing one group of work there’s always a new avenue, whether it’s a whole questions or new idea that spins off. There’s not shortage of ideas, just a shortage of time.