Have you ever looked closely at a tree? Have you ever looked really, really closely? This month, Lion Stone Books releases Clothed in Bark, a truly unique book that’ll have readers regarding their towering, leafy neighbors in a new way. Produced by the sister-brother team Sallie and Frank Lowenstein, the book combines detailed and textured photo-drawings of trees and their coverings with an essay on the state of forests in the era of climate change—all of which is contained in a hand-bound volume that’s equal parts book and art object.
Here, Sallie and Frank interview each other about the creative process behind the book.
Sallie: When you saw the first finished book, was it what you expected?
Frank: Not at all. The long, thin format startled me, and when I opened it I was stunned by how much the printing looked like the original art. The binding is not like that of any other book I’ve seen. We don’t think much about bindings, but this one changes the book into a sculpture, because each book has a hand woven spine and differences in the hand-cut covers.
Frank: Can you explain what photo-drawings are?
Sallie: In 2009 and 2010, I took more than 300 photos. I printed the photos on a fine, archival drawing paper rather than photo paper, which gives them more texture and a softer look than most digital photographs. Then I drew into them with artist’s technical pens to accentuate the patterns, textures, and three-dimensionality of trees and their bark. People kept asking what medium they were presented in, so I conjured up the name “photo-drawings.”
Sallie: I know you spend a lot of time in forests and out in the woods. What makes trees so compelling to you?
Frank: Actually, for me, it’s not so much trees that are compelling as forests. When I’m alone in a forest, I have a sense of peace and hidden meaning. I feel a kind of joy that’s addictive. I have to go back for more; I’m addicted to forests. Think there’s a twelve-step program for that?
Frank: How did you find the trees that are the subject of the book?
Sallie: One day, for no particular reason, I became fascinated with the endless variations of color and patterns in trees. After that, I took my camera with me and made close-ups of the bark on trees everywhere I went: Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.; Mt. Rainier in Seattle; Stanley Park in Vancouver; the cloud forest in Costa Rica; the trees in my own neighborhood, in parking lots. Everywhere!
Sallie: I suspect that most of what you’ve written or read about forest health didn’t emerge from artwork. How did the artwork affect your decisions about what you wrote about trees for this book?
Frank: The details in the art remind me of details I hold in my memory—usually of especially beautiful spots in forests. So when I thought of an essay as companion to this art, I was thinking of places that have stirred me emotionally, and I wanted my writing to stir people, too.
Frank: What made you decide to put a collection of your tree drawings into a book format?
Sallie: I displayed 120 of the drawings in leather portfolios at an art show, which required me to sequence them like pages in books. That planted the first seed. When person after person contacted me, telling me how much they’d been affected by the work and now saw trees differently, I knew these drawings needed to be in the hands of more viewers and readers. And since I write, illustrate, design, and publish books anyway—I just went ahead and did it.
Sallie: I learned a lot from your essay—what did you learn from working on this book? Did it change how you thought about trees and presenting their issues to the public?
Frank: Like most scientists, I spend a lot of time trying to convey the knowledge I’ve uncovered. But in this book—responding to the photo-drawings I think—I tried to convey the emotional impact of being in the woods, and the fear I feel for the future of our forests (and for other habitats, too).
Frank: If you could travel anywhere to see trees that you haven’t yet seen, where would it be?
Sallie: It doesn’t matter where I go—I see amazing trees. I was just in Oxford, Maryland, where I saw a river beech, planted in 1891. Its branches and leaves drooped to the ground, but if you ducked under the branches, they formed a tree-cave probably fifty feet in diameter. Talk about wondrous! And yes, I took pictures.
Sallie: Did you ever think about what the world would be like without trees?
Frank: It’s impossible for me to imagine the whole world without trees, but I’ve seen watersheds where nearly all the trees have been killed by wildfire, or insect attack, and it’s deeply disturbing—and dangerous. During thunderstorms you get massive floods, which send logs, sand, and rocks washing downstream.
Frank: Binding each book is a huge amount of work, and each one ends up a little different. Why did you prefer to publish a hand-bound book instead of just printing and binding it like a typical modern book?
Sallie: It’s quite a task. Each book takes four hours to bind: assembling the signatures; cutting the covers from a whole leather hide; punching the holes in pages and covers; sewing the signatures together with a medieval long stitch; and weaving the spine so it resembles patterns in bark. But it’s worth it. I wanted this book to be as tangible as possible. I wanted it to be unavoidably tactile, and to mirror the unending variations found in trees.
Sallie: What do you want the reader to take away from your essay?
Frank: Hope, fear, passion. But most of all a mandate to get off the couch and do something.
Frank: The publishing world is changing a lot. How does this book relate to the changes that are happening?
Sallie: The modern book world is becoming less and less interested in books with long-term cultural and intellectual impact. Publishers give real books shelf lives shorter than that of cans of soup, and the virtual screen-delivered files that we increasingly refer to as “books” are easily deleted or forgotten. I stand by the value and longevity of the real book, and artisanal books like this one go one step further—they cross over into being works of art as well as books. And a work of art is not yet as disposable as a can of soup.
Frank Lowenstein is an essayist and a climate and forest conservation expert living in Sheffield, Massachusetts; Sallie Lowenstein is a fine artist, publisher, and author who lives in Washington, D.C.