Speak for the Trees by Kathleen Cain

Monday, March 01, 2010 2:00 AM | Anonymous

We human beings have a complicated relationship with trees. We get food from them, we once lived in them and occasionally still do, we admire their beauty, and some of us have even been known to hug them. We also cut them down, burn them, poison them, and use them to build houses, toilet paper, sawdust, and toothpicks.

All of these ideas are explored in words and images in “Speak for the Trees,” an exhibition and its companion book, both of which are showcased at Freisen Gallery from now until May 29. The book contains images of all 76 works that were submitted by painters, sculptors, photographers, glass artists, and conceptual artists from all over the world; many of them were created exclusively for this project. More than 50 of these are in the exhibition and that selection includes pieces created David Hockney, Yoko Ono, Mark Ryden, and the Starn brothers. The Northwest artists featured in this show are Julie Speidel, Spike Mafford, Michael Brophy, Martin Blank, Catherine Eaton Skinner, Laura Sharp Wilson, Steve Jensen, Janis Miltenberger, and 2009 Neddy Award Nominee Lynda Lowe.

It’s pretty easy to get a little sentimental when it comes to trees, and some of these artists do. But that’s understandable. Trees are, after all, are the original performance artists. They live with their feet in the ground and their heads in the sky. They drop their clothes and go naked in the winter, then put them back on in the summer. Trees neither spin nor toil, unless you count that essential little product called oxygen. And they are such flagrant poets, flapping their leaves in collaboration with the wind in a million different ways to expand its vocabulary from gentle gossip to howling complaint. Think back to your earliest memories and see if they don’t include the shifting colors and mysterious sounds made by the wind playing in the trees.  

But all of their art-for-its-own-sake tendencies tend to divert us from the fact that trees are much more than vegetable poets or hapless victims of our neglect and stupidity. They’re our caretakers. We don’t own them; they own us. Sit up and take notice because without them, we die.

The more you look at this book and exhibition the more you understand that we’re the ones who are going to be destroyed if we don’t stop destroying trees. The trees portrayed, observed, and sometimes flagrantly worshipped in this book and exhibition, possess dignity, power, wisdom, mystery, and most especially, a fine disregard for human presence. Some of the them are a bit sinister, it’s true, but even the most benign and whimsical ones don’t seem as if they will miss us when we’re gone. These trees may be temporarily vulnerable to our stupidity but if we don’t start paying attention to their survival, we will simply disappear. They will go on ruling the earth just as they have been doing since long before we showed up. And they will be here long after our dust has settled. After all, it wasn’t the missing people who miraculously rose up out of the ashes of Mt. Saint Helens. It was the plants and trees.   

There are plenty of pieces I like in this show but I have room to mention just a few. Lin Rabin’s “Minuum #8,” a simultaneously nano and macro point of view, leaves you wondering whether you’re looking at trees from far, far away, or deep inside a chlorophyll molecule. Tom Zetterstrom’s romantic yet respectful portrait of an American Elm makes it clear that this is a tree you would never presume to hug without a formal introduction. Jennifer Bolandis spookily manipulates images from old postcards to remind you that it’s probably not wise to venture into an Irish forest at the close of the day. Catherine Eaton Skinner’s elegant encaustic panels of trees flanking one of her signature 108 grids won’t be in the show, but the piece that replaces them is every bit as fascinating and intricate. And Louis Reiner’s painting, “On Via Fagina #4,” reminded me of how a tree looks to a child: lofty, mysterious and grand but also nurturing and very much alive.

The trees that inspired these artists are neither fragile nor helpless. They don’t need us in order to survive; in fact they don’t need anything from us. It’s the other way around. Whatever we do to trees, we do to ourselves, only faster and more efficiently. So when we speak for trees, we’re really speaking for ourselves.  

The message of this exhibit is that the seed has always been mightier than the sword. So go take a look. And even if you’re not a tree-hugger, you will probably start thinking about what trees have to do with our own survival.

Kathleen Cain

Kathleen Cain is a Seattle-based free-lance writer and bibliophile who follows art, admires trees, and refuses to sleep in the woods at night.

“Speak for the Trees” exhibit is on view from April 1 through May 29 at Friesen Gallery which is located at 1210 Second Avenue in Seattle, Washington. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Saturday from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. The reception with many showcased artists in attendance is to be held on Thursday, April 1, from 6 to 8 P.M. For more information, please call (206) 628-9501, email friesen@friesengallery.com, or visit the website www.friesengallery.com.
   

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