Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2011 | People

Forest Artist

By Kathryn Howe
Meet Joan Backes, 72BA

Nestled inside Germany's Odenwald Forest sits a house composed of tree trunks and branches from the nearby landscape. It's the kind of structure that artist Joan Backes hopes reminds viewers of Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, characters from the Grimm fairy tales her parents used to read to her when she was a little girl.

In fact, this permanent installation by Backes*, 72BA, is located near the childhood home of the Brothers Grimm. She built "Forest House" as part of the 2010 Internationaler Waldkunstpfad Biennial art exhibition in Darmstadt, Germany, carefully cutting each twig by hand.

The result is an intriguing space that invites visitors to come inside and view the forest through seven open windows. Through "Forest House" and other works like "Stilt House"— featuring four structures of birch, ash, and recycled wood in Sweden's Linnaeus Garden— Backes celebrates nature's beauty.


Joan Backes' work has appeared throughout the world in museums and galleries. This April 15, she opens an exhibition at the Dean Jensen Gallery in her hometown of Milwaukee.

Nature has long been Backes' inspiration. For the past decade, she's concentrated on trees—from houses to paintings. She's produced acrylic interpretations of bark that are often mistaken for the real thing. She's laminated more than 1,000 leaves from various species and seasons and placed them in patterns on art gallery floors, bringing the outdoors in through her "Carpet of Leaves."

To deliver a contemporary, multisensory experience, she often employs video and sound in her tree houses. Inside "Paper House"—made of shredded, recycled office paper—she placed headphones so visitors could listen to different composers' interpretations of the sound of wind through trees. "Cardboard House," with its shingles from each continent, includes a short video that captures an oak tree as it changes over the course of a year.

Trees make particularly inspiring subjects, Backes says, not just for the majesty they bring to the environment, but for their rich history of symbolism, myth, and metaphor. "I think of the many ways we use the word 'tree'—ancestral tree, the tree of life," she explains. "The symbolic tree represents humans in nature, while the mythological tree reaches its roots to the underworld and its branches to the heavens."

A walk through the forest may never be the same.