Chopping wood 

Renee Couture sees the forest for the trees

How do we quantify the value of America's forests? Can it be measured in board-feet of timber? The number of log trucks filled in a day, or the number of people employed in mills? Or can we measure worth in ways that are less quantifiable, say ecological or recreational value? Whose voices belong in these debates?

Oregon-based artist Renee Couture raises all these questions in her new show, It May Take Longer, which opens Nov. 2 at The Brink Gallery. The ideas behind the exhibit spring from the town of Roseburg and the surrounding county, where Couture lives.

"I live in a historically timber-dependent community," Couture says. "I was trying to make sense of the things I heard and saw, from people very much on different ends of the conversation."

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Couture wends her way through fraught territory centered on the forests of the Pacific Northwest. She wonders if "ecological needs can be taken care of while also taking care of the community."

Couture grapples with these ideas by using actual artifacts from the timber industry. A main component of the exhibit features archival field cruise cardsthe forms that timber cruisers fill out to tell loggers the number of trees to cut in a certain area, how they should be harvested, what type of trees occupy a certain plot and who is in charge of the sale. The cards she uses are old, creased and muddy, the handwriting coarse, the information full of jargon and abbreviations. They detail long hours of running chainsaws and skidders in Oregon's rainy forests.

Couture took these archival cards and overlaid them with black-and-white photographs and drawings of animals, plants and people in a collage. The imagery abstractly suggests different approaches to forest management.

"I got the cruise cards at the BLM in Roseburg," she says. "I just thought they were so beautiful. I'm interested in the sort of coded language that's on them. There's a sense of place, time and the hand of the person writing. It's one way of valuing the landscape, and it's so quantifiable, and then there's all the other stuff layered over itthe critters, the flowersand that's a little more difficult to place a monetary value on."

The images are precise and lovely, but also fanciful: a man and a woman play chess, and she sports a rack of antlers. A creature that is half-bear and half-deer grows a field of morels on its back. A vulture confers with an orating bear. Feathers appear to fall from the sky.

The show also includes sculptural installations that utilize one of the world's most ubiquitous building blocks: the two-by-four. In these sculptures, Couture says, she wanted to explore the idea of labor. "A two-by-four becomes a unit of labor, and one of the most basic things that comes out of the tree, but that we don't really see, because they become invisible within our walls," she says. "They also give an idea of what drives these jobs in the woods."

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Couture is hoping that people will look at a simple piece of lumber and see complex relationships represented in it. "The construction industry is tanking, and fewer two-by-fours are being needed," she says. "Is that what's causing fewer jobs? Or is it litigation from activists? The different groups blame each other, but actually the situation is very layered. It's not one or the other."

In the exhibit, Couture is careful not to offer answers or even a clear position on the forest-use debate.

"I'm kind of hijacking the debate from who's usually involved in it," she says. "It's usually people at a table trying to form public policy around forest practices, and it's usually environmental activists and industry people who are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But sometimes who's not at the table is, well, you know, me."

Renee Couture's exhibit It May Take Longer opens at The Brink Gallery First Friday, Nov. 2, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free.

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