“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ― John Muir
I spent the spring of 2011 in Yorkshire England at an arts residence. When I returned it was summer here and my lawn was overgrown and some planted things had withered away (why I planted things before my journey…). It took a few days to notice that a hundred foot spruce on the front of my property had completely died. It was a grand old tree and we loved it for many reasons. In the heat it provided wonderful shade and in the winter it was a hub for migrating birds, and it was just a fabulously huge old tree. We thought of it as a silent elder holding onto all the secret histories of our little log cabin.
We cut it down. We felt the poor old thing would become a hazard; all that needed to happen was one crazy wind storm, we now have many, and the top could fly off and do some serious damage to us or something else like our studio. We hated cutting it down and felt as though we were betraying the natural cycle of the wilderness we had come to respect. Once gone we marveled at the immediate encroachment of smaller spruces vying to take its place. And we now have this enormous stump that acts like a plinth for various outdoor sculptural projects which have become a new fun endeavour.
Trees are a huge part of my life. I am surrounded by them. My house is made from them. I heat my home in the winter from their byproduct and I use their deconstructed versions as surfaces for my art work. They inspire me and at the risk of sounding like a total nature nerd and I am totally sheepish about writing this down, they teach me things. One thing I have learned from trees is listening. Trees make a lot of sound if you listen to them.
For many people trees aren’t that interesting, as Homer Simpson once said, “Who cares about trees? They just stand around like a bunch of jerks.” I can of course see that argument but if you lived among them as I do they no longer seem like they’re just standing around, they actually seem to be interactive. In many ways they are.
Trees, like all scientific fields, are now being researched on nano levels. Dendrologists (wood scientists) think that spores given off from the tops of trees help guide migrating birds around the globe. Particulate from burning wood has been studied extensively. Many respiratory illnessses are caused by an atmosphere clogged with too many people burning wood. This is in part one of the reasons it is not encouraged in cities. Where I live however smelling wood burning conjures up feelings that encompass everything from safety and comfort to childhood adventures and possibly atavistic longings. Although I find wood bits in every item of clothing I have, I love the ritual every winter morn to warm up the house with trees that used to stand near me.
When I first moved to the country I was uncertain about my studio practice. I wanted to paint but only had a theoretical understanding of it. I initially thought I wanted to manipulate the surfaces of wood cast offs from my partner’s paintings. He works on wood too but with power tools and makes saw dust that also clings to everything I own. Over time however I realized that what I loved about painting was the feeling of control ( if this is real or imagined is a whole other blog) and that paint was the ultimate tool I should use. I guess at that moment I could have chosen canvas to work on but since there would always be a ready supply from my partner of goodly shaped wood pieces I opted to stay painting on wood.
Wood surfaces are not blank surfaces, they have a design already. What I love so much about these surfaces is that I believe I am imprinting on a composition; that my work is already a palimpsest from the beginning of the process. This idea goes toward a personal philosophy I have. I think that my creativity is just another layering onto a vast history of art and myth making and that I am part of an ongoing process. Working with wood keeps this in focus.
All artists have a relationship with their materials. And it is a relationship. It takes work if you want it to last and though the excitement might dissipate over time you can count on them because you both know each other so well. You come to realize over time the relationship is what is sustaining you and not the other way around.
My relationship with wood begins with the forest surrounding my home. Once the wood becomes art it has only shifted laterally toward another epoch. Perhaps I am just repurposing the tree, perhaps it is repurposing me; in any event we are tied together now for art, for heat and for learning how to be still and how to listen.