Recently I spent an inspiring and informative week working as a volunteer for the Scottish charity Trees for Life in the beautiful surroundings of Glen Affric. I was inspired to sign up for a week with Trees for Life after hearing Alan Watson-Featherstone – the charity’s founder – present a talk about re-wilding with fellow advocate for all things feral, George Monbiot (see this earlier post for more on Monbiot: https://flyingcreature.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/2013-the-year-in-review/. With some trepidation we boarded the train to Inverness, our attempts to spot fellow ‘trees for lifers’ (big rucksacks, sturdy shoes, alternative vibe) came to nothing. Looking out of the window at the beautiful view, it was lovely to see lapwings wheeling around, low to the ground, as we passed the highest point on the line and found ourselves in amongst mountains with the Cairngorms to our right and Rannoch Moor to our left.
Any apprehension about the week was quickly laid aside once we met the group and headed off for our introductory walk in the beautiful surroundings of Glen Affric. Within a couple of hours I had learnt all sorts of things about native Scottish flora and we had even spotted a female crossbill perched on the top of a Scots Pine – what an advert for the importance of re-foresting Scotland! All credit for the success of the week should go to the two group leaders who were fantastically knowledgeable, with an infectious enthusiasm for the natural world. Our days were spent walking, working and wildlife watching. This was an experience to be recommended, more details about what Trees for Life do can be found on their website here: http://treesforlife.org.uk/ With trees on my mind I thought I would take the opportunity to look at artists and writers who have taken trees as inspiration. Of course, although birds and things that move, are my main focus, I realise that trees and how they shape the landscape are key to the survival of my chosen subject matter. I suspect I will pay more attention now to these remarkable living things – even if they do move a bit slower than their inhabitants! Paul Klee, Fig Tree, watercolour Paul Klee is one of my favourite artists. The lightness of touch to his work is beautifully contrasted with a profound ability to depict universal experience. The painting above is a great example – it contains a childlike simplicity of execution whilst also serving as a more sophisticated response to the subject, stripping away any detail to capture something of the essence of a fig tree. It has an intriguing effect of showing the tree to be emitting light, whilst drawing comparisons between the form of the tree and the form of its leaves – a multi-layered image. Klee is also very good at writing about art and in the following extract he draws comparison between the function of an artist and a tree.
‘May I use a simile, the simile of a tree? The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of a tree. From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye. Thus he stands as the trunk of a tree. Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into work. As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work. Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce vital divergences… [S]tanding at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules – he transmits. His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.’
Paul Klee, extract from On Modern Art pp 13 – 15
Another favourite artist of mine is English visionary, Samuel Palmer. His trees beautifully convey a deep understanding of the form and structure of specific species, whilst also showing an expressive beauty which imbues his images with a sense of magic and mystery. In the sketchbook page below we can see how he is looking for comparisons between the shape and form of each tree trunk. And in his beautiful drawing of an oak tree, notice how Palmer introduces points of colour to add a sense of mystery to the piece. That yellow along the curving line of the horizon is so intense it looks unreal, and yet we have all experienced colours in the natural world that don’t seem real. In his work Palmer draws our attention to that tension between experience and reality, through a combination of direct observation and personal expression. The composition, which allows the form of the oak tree to dominate, helps to give weight to Palmer’s vision of the power of nature. Graham Sutherland is an artist who was directly inspired by the dream-like qualities of Samuel Palmer’s work. In the following painting, Sutherland has transformed a humble tree-trunk into a twisting, living form emerging out of the ambigous mossy darkness. I love the way in which his colours and marks directly reference specific sensations – the sunlit interior of a mossy woodland – but the form and structures of his work allows room for our imagination to discover further meaning.
Sutherland is well known for his series of crucifixion paintings and during his research for this he became interested in the crown of thorns imagery. The following quote illustrates the way in which he is able to look closely at ordinary subject matter and use drawing as a starting point for imaginative transformation:
I started to notice thorn bushes, and the structure of thorns as they pierced the air. I made some drawings, and as I made them, a curious change developed. As the thorns rearranged themselves, they became, whilst still retaining their own pricking space encompassing life, something else – a kind of stand-in for a Crucifixion and a crucified head.
David Nash is a British sculpture who has spent his artistic career wholly occupied with trees and wood. Author Annie Proulx puts it beautifully in the following quote:
It is pleasant to imagine that David Nash comes to us from the forest. He began, perhaps, as a sprout rising from the root of a fallen ash. The ash, with powers unknown to people, metamorphosed the sprout into human form and told him to go among ignorant men and explain the world of trees. For humans had lost their spiritual and aesthetic knowledge of forest, wood and bosque, seeing only exploitation and utility in trees. And when his human body wore out, the ash promised, he would return to the forest and again manifest as a tree. And so, half-human, half-lignum, Nash lives among us translating wood with humour, grace and extraordinary creativity. There was a time when humans were familiar with the sentient forest; Nash opens the door to that world again.
The full article the above quote is taken from can be found here: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/may/15/david-nash-sculpture-annie-proulx
My two favourite pieces by Nash define the extremes of his practice – one exploring ideas of static change, the other considering transient change. His Ash Dome, created in 1977, is a ring of planted ash trees which Nash has shaped over the years to form a dome shape. The location of the piece is highly secretive and Nash regularly returns to tend to it and make drawings from it, using charcoal made from the ash trees themselves, such as the one below:
Wooden Boulder, made in 1978, began with a large wooden sphere, shaped by Nash and left by him in the North Wales landscape. Nash subsequently tracked the journey of the piece as it moved through the countryside, often along streams and rivers, over a period of 25 years. Inevitably the journey of the boulder was unpredictable, it remained static for long periods of time before travelling quite rapidly, at one point it disappeared completely only to re-emerge five years later. I love the fragility of this project, the need to continue to look and discover the progress of the boulder, the way in which it gives us a deeper understanding of the processes of nature.
Both these pieces show a respect and understanding for the systems of the natural world, which I appreciate in Nash’s work. His work manages to contain a playfulness, whilst also making us think about the wider world around us in a more profound way. To finish – a recent drawing of mine made in an amazing, stunted forest on the edge of a windswept headland between Longniddry and Aberlady. I was there in February; the light was intensely bright and there were goldcrests moving about in the higher branches. At one point one landed on a branch very close to me and we eye-balled each other – one of those amazing moments where you feel a connection has been made between you and a wild creature – magic!