10 February 2016

"And Then There Are the Secrets of the Trees" - Tree Post I

“And then there are the secrets of the trees.” –David Friend

It has been my resolution to reconsider, actively, the icon and the reality of the tree, and utilize both more in my work.

This is a relatively easy realization or observation to put forth, but it struck me as peculiar how my love for the giants of our natural world still has yet to translate into my visual vocabulary with any fluency. You would think whatever holds our affection, and fascination, would be an automatic integral part of our creations, but in my case, with trees, not so much.

While I continue to explore for myself why that is, the point here is that more reading, visual art exploration, and continued in-person observation on trees has been working steadily, increasingly, back into my daily process.

In particular, I’ve waited not too patiently these past few months to develop a concept to completion through a multi-product process that indulges the tree as the sole subject. I’ve been given an opportunity to work with it finally, and so, in tandem with the other gallery show work, I’m going to see what I can manage with this long standing idea.

It started with two words: ‘tree bridge’

This was put down on paper as an intentionally loose, playful, and ‘note-taking’ large scale thumbnail sketch, that I came home from one of my jobs to scribble down in the sketchbook, and looked like this:

I received repeat positive response to this initial exploration through social media and from person to person critique amongst art friends. When I talked about my interest to develop it further into a large-scale drawing and then painting, I was encouraged as well.

Now, I’ve been psyching myself up for the next approach to this concept, a large, decent drawing, with further studies and references to the tree, in both art and fact.

One of my favorite books on trees is by James Balog, an adventurous photographer, whose work marries science and poetic artistry into a project of inspiring power. I’ve owned this book for a while, and gifted it to a few photographers I know:

I’ve reread much of it and poured over his stunning photography within it’s pages for the millionth time, this last pass focusing more deliberately on connections to my own project vision.

John Muir, a naturalist involved with the Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, said, “To the outer ears these trees are silent, [yet] their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings”
I am certain I am not the only one to feel that we are encountering something ‘knowing’ and dynamic when we take in the presence of a tree, such is the impact of so many years active within one seemingly statuesque figure.

James Balog himself writes in his book “Tree”, paired with one of his compiled photographs of a gorgeous, ancient angel oak, “I can’t help wonder who truly is the observer and who is the observed. While we watch them, do they gaze back at us? It is easy to understand the reciprocity of the visual exchange when a creature has eyes. Does a plant have some other sense that we mammals lack the capacity to understand?”…. It’s a sense we get sometimes, anyways; “this forest has eyes”, we say, when venturing forth into the unknown woodland, perhaps feeling as if we are somehow observed by the strange beings standing all around us like a freeze-frame militia party.

I want to impart something of those non-existent “eyes” into the piece I am developing here, a personified presence as if wisdom and eons of observing us tiny, flimsy, fleeting Homo sapiens is retained within the colossus standing patiently therein.

Normal trees can get truly massive in scale compared to us humans, let alone mythical and metaphorical ones such as the famous Yggdrasil from Norse mythology. I’m referencing the latter kind of tree, something of epic and ethereal proportions, so I want to tackle the challenge of stepping back and sizing up such a thing within the confines of a composition.

Balog observes, “If, as Wallace Stegner said, ‘Space is a place with no memory’, then a great tree infuses empty space with memory and turns it into a place, creating a bridge between civilization and wildest wilderness”.

My ‘tree bridge’, now dubbed ‘The Infinity Tree’ as the working title, needs to grow into a space that holds a sense of place at once unbreachable and venerable. A being imperative to bridge two dimensions through it’s own existence. A vertical union, communion, a pillar of light, water, life force, and integrity, that is what this epic tree drawing should be about.

By extension, I want to impart that long held connection to the god-world that we’ve assumed of trees into the drawing. In our awe of the elegant, expansive, symbolic strength of the oak tree, for example, it’s character would be a good element to work with. As Balog writes, “Lightning strikes oak more often than it does other species. To ancient cultures, this made oak appear to be conduits for bringing the power of the sky gods down to earth. Accordingly, the trees were held in great reverence”.  The Celts, for example, not only recognized natural patterns associated with trees and the elements, but honored the trees as a system of symbols for virtues and values in life. They had a tree ‘alphabet’, called ogham, which was their only known form of written documentation in the culture. Oak, one of the most prominent of the native trees in their iconography, represented strength and integrity.

With reference from the oak, I’ll pull in inspiration from other appealing trees that lend a more universal final figure to the drawing’s subject. It shouldn’t be a certain kind of tree, but a tree of all trees, beyond any human identification system.

That's all for now. More to come on this tree installment shortly.

Happy creating!

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