A Celebration of Trees | connecting heaven and earth
Updated: Jun 13
written for one of Kilmorack Gallery's ikigai rooms. Inspired by the work of Ian Westacott and others artist mendioned. Trees are a recurrling theme in artists' work. Our local woods had just been felled to make way for a quarry. 17th August 2020
Trees should be kings of this world. Their near immortal lives see all; but instead of short forgettable words, they tell us of the past through bump, callus and ring. They feed birds with berries, and worms with fallen autumn leaves, and they connect heaven and earth. Within, they are a complexity of water, sap and sunshine; and without, they can be pack creatures, like the beech or wild gean, or they can live in solitude like the rowan or a crowed oak or pine. In ancient China, the peach tree yields the fruit of immortality, and in Norse mythology Yggdrasil, an ash tree, connects the nine worlds. Artists, of course, cannot ignore them, and here in Kilmorack their influence is deep, and surprisingly broad, because a tree is a different thing to each artist.
The most obvious lover of trees is Ian Westacott. To Westacott the tree is a storyteller, and each woody individual has remained rooted to a single spot for a lifetime longer than our own. They have seen and endured so much. Many of Westacott’s trees have names: Cromwell’s Chestnut, Forbes’ Oak and the Oak Wish Tree, and if you look at them hard, faces stare back from the paper. The intricacy and enmeshed quality of etchings, when paper and ink become one, reflect the dendric complexity. It was a medium loved by Rembrandt too, another great etcher of trees.
The infinite mathematical forms found within a tree are often the subject of Patricia Cain’s work. Cain looks deeply into a hedge and pulls out moments when leaf and branch express the urge to grow in their skyward-twisted movements. They reach for light. For a tree, a human day takes four seasons to complete. A tree’s morning, mid-day and evening are all beautiful. Cain’s process mirrors the arboreal intricacy, for she works in a meditative state capturing each leaf in pastel, paint or collage. A tree to others is an expression of God’s love. It is proof of the divine. This is what Allan MacDonald aims to capture with his oil paintings. Trees live their lives as they are meant to: with grace and beauty. MacDonald’s gift is being able to retain the energy of the birch and oak he paints, by using expressive brush work. He must approach each painting embodying the creative zest if he is to capture the trees soul. Paint, used well, can also be life. Jane MacNeill’s trees link worlds. They are ghost conduits, and through them we see another reality, the easily missed moment a shaman sees through the corner of his eye. Jane MacNeill’s subtle technique helps us see this too. She applies paint and then sands it away, repeating this process until we are forced to look differently at her painting. We are drawn into the smallest and largest features at the same time, into tree-time. In Robert McAulay’s work trees appear when needed. They are his Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement. To some they provide a place to bury a body, but to McAulay they give shelter, joy and friendship. They are McAulay’s counterpoint to urbanism, restoring balance to a world that is too often abused. Like a painting, the world needs a balanced composition and trees provide this.
Trees and myth are inseparable. Robert Powell paints Daphne as a laurel tree and Apollo as the brute that tried to rape her. The swift huntress-turned-tree is rooted as leaves blow on the Autumnal wind. Man, God and trees like the seasons are linked. The ultimate teller of myths is Paul Reid and his work is rarely without trees: Cernunnos, the Gaelic god that stradles between man and wild places, sits in a wood and Typhon carries a tree as a staff. Reid also etches, draws and studies trees. They are always Scottish trees, from the woods around his home near Edinburgh. They root the myth he tells in the real world around him. The tale is universal, but the location is specific. Trees can also be a theatrical prop. In Mark Edwards white woods, trees are almost wheeled onto the set of his mystery paintings. They are characters that reoccur in each chapter in his white wood story. They are both part of Edward’s play and witness to it. It is as if the scenario is being see not by another Homburg hatted man or even a human, but by a tree that is placed just off scene. That is who we identify with.
Few understand the fabric of the tree, its wooden body, better than Duke Christie. He has spent years feeling the grain of different trees and understanding each unique quality: the rich grain and strength of oak and the purity of ash. His aim is to release these qualities and let us see the wonder within it, and he achieves this with dazzling success. His work is a tactile refractive delight that shows us miracles under the bark.
Trees tell us of the past, they show us how to live and capture, in slow motion, the determination of life. We live and set our myths among them and with knowledge they help us in our daily lives. The wonder of trees, like a forest, is hard to count.