Inside the birch grove

Inside a room with charcoal colored walls, images of luminous white birch trees glow beneath the lights.

The trunks — some slender, some thick — were painted on 8-foot-tall clear Plexiglas panels by Ashland artist Claire Stephens. A total of 12 panels hang in three rows inside Southern Oregon University's Retzlaff Gallery, creating the appearance of a birch tree grove growing inside a building.

The effect is both realistic and otherworldly.

Creating the exhibit was a yearlong endeavor for Stephens, who graduated in 2008 with a degree in art from Portland State University. She now works full-time as a nanny, which leaves her evenings and weekends for painting.

Each 8-by-4 Plexiglas panel cost $145.

"I budgeted to buy some Plexiglas every month. I would buy about two a month, or every other month," Stephens said.

Finding space to work on the panels was also a challenge. She and her husband, fellow artist Colby Stephens, share a home in town.

"My studio space is the first floor in our house," she said. "It's also our guest room and our laundry room. I was able to line three panels on one wall.

"Our ceiling is not eight feet tall, so they were leaning on the wall. I would climb on a ladder to paint the top part of the panels or sit on the floor for the lower parts."

With the total weight of the 12 panels hitting 600 pounds, Stephens' husband built a steel armature beneath the Retzlaff Gallery's ceiling from which to suspend the panels. The couple and two friends spent 14 hours hanging the installation.

Once up, the relationship of the trees to each other becomes clear. They accent each other with their mix of sizes. In the back row, a slim broken trunk casts a diagonal line across the otherwise vertical composition.

The exhibit is striking from a distance, and also holds up on close inspection with its careful modeling of light and shadow, and details such as curls of papery birch bark peeling away.

Stephens, who has long been fascinated with birch trees, carefully researched their appearance, even gathering bark samples when she was out in the woods.

Behind the panels, the exhibit's lights cast intricate crisscrossing tree trunk shadows.

"I'm really excited about doing an installation with paintings," Stephens said.

"Instead of being formally hung on a wall, you have to view it from all different angles."

The installation, which runs through Feb. 25, is Stephens' latest work that uses the natural world for inspiration.

In earlier pieces, she painted chandeliers hanging in a birch grove. She continued that theme in black-and-white photographs that feature chandeliers and chairs in forest settings. Other photos show beads and pearls against leaves, sticks and moss. Though man-made, the beads and pearls have the appearance of shimmering seeds or dewdrops.

Another mysterious series of photos shows twigs, moss and intricately patterned feathers in nest formations. The effect is like taking an extraordinarily intimate look into a wild but fragile world.

For more information on Stephens and to see images of her work, visit her website at Her pieces are for sale and she also does commissions. Her e-mail is

Retzlaff Gallery hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The gallery is inside the art building, next to the Schneider Museum of Art, near the intersection of Siskiyou Boulevard and Indiana Street.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

Correction: The name of the exhibit has been corrected throughout.

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