When professional members of the Society of Scottish Artists were invited to submit proposals for new or existing works that engage creatively with the concept of ‘Time Spent Amongst Trees’, I guess it was inevitable that the topic would attract widespread attention from SSA members. For centuries trees have served as a popular inspiration for artists, typically eliciting a level of affection that is reflected in the opinion of the wider population. As C.R. Leslie once remarked in his Memoirs of the Life of John Constable (1843), “I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy like that with which he could catch up a beautiful child into his arms.”
Rare is it to find anybody expressing the opinion of their dislike of trees, and particularly not in our own times of climate catastrophe. Response to the Society’s call for artists dealing with the silvicultural subjects was broad therefore, and in the current exhibition Time Spent Among the Trees at the Meffan Gallery, included are works by Elaine Allison, Alan Bond, Jessica Copping, Tadeusz Deregowski, Joan Doerr, Jana Emburey, David Forster, Andrea Geile, Alison Grant, Audrey Grant, Shona Grant, Su Grierson, Mike Inglis, Linda Kosciewicz, Kirsty Lorenz, Sarah McKenzie-Smith, Janet Melrose, Kenris MacLeod, Gillian Murray, Gayle Nelson, Mark Osborne, Duncan Robertson, Anne Russell, Catherine Sargeant, Carol Sinclair, Jenny Smith, Graeme Swanson, Miriam Vickers, Mary Walters and Denise Zygadlo.
Naturally (just look at the names above), the works displayed are diverse and varied, not just in terms of the chosen media but the insights they offer. When I recently wrote in issue three of Art North magazine that ‘we need to talk about trees’, I was quick to highlight a sense of commonality that all these artists seem to share. As I wrote in that recent article (within an issue of Art North that contained several articles on silvicultural art by a number of authors: “The philosophical basis for countless examples of silviculture in art might be seen to lie in the writings of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who expressed the view that ‘inorganic nature, provided it does not consist of water, produces a very melancholy, indeed oppressive impression upon us’.” Perhaps I should explain…
What Schopenhauer indicated in his thinking was what he viewed as an opposition of the “inorganic mass” of the desert or a rocky landscape with what he termed the immediate pleasure to be derived from seeing “vegetation that proclaims the phenomenon of life as a new and higher order of things,” and in many ways, this is what the exhibition discussed here deals with – whether specifically, or obliquely.
Take, for example, the work titled You by Kenris MacLeod, a textile artist who lives and works in Edinburgh. As MacLeod writes of the work exhibited:
The philosopher, Martin Buber, suggests that if we refer to the world in terms of ‘I and Thou’ rather than ‘I and It’ we suddenly apprehend new beings. Thus, trees become considered as unique individuals, each one ‘you’ rather than ‘it’ and they become known to us in an entirely different way. It is the sense of living alongside a race of ‘others’, who surround us but who we can never fully comprehend, that I wish to convey.
Kenris MacLeod asks of us that we “allow ourselves to be enveloped and absorbed” and that “we become a sapling in the forest, surrounded by a family.” The phenomenon of life as a new and higher order of things is patently there in MacLeod’s thinking, I would suggest.
However we seek to express an understanding of what Kenris MacLeod refers to above, it is difficult to escape our identification with trees as living beings like ourselves – something that has a long history in myth, folklore and science (all of which are far beyond the scope of this text to explore in detail). Such a sense of what is referred to, however, is reflected in this exhibition in the work of Sarah Mckenzie Smith too.
Of Mackenzie Smith’s photograph titled You Breathe I Breathe We Breathe she states, “One day, a few years ago, the sun captured this moment in time spent amongst trees with my young daughter. We lived on the edge of Kemback Woods in Fife and passed many of our days together deep in the woods. I am fascinated by our symbiotic relationship with trees. They breathe out the oxygen we need and we breathe out the carbon dioxide they need. We literally breathe each other.”
If Schopenhauer stressed vegetation as persistently reinforcing in our imagination a higher order of life, then surely mention of David Forster’s When then transitional period has ended (2019) would be apposite at this juncture. Near the Spa town of Krynica in the low forested mountains of south east Poland, Forster explains that he came upon a toilet block and washroom at the base of a hiking trail that had been closed over by the encroaching forest. “The area was full of blockish and rusty remnants of communist-era tourist infrastructure, now superseded by sleeker, and markedly more expensive, monuments to the benefit of market forces. I liked the way in which the products of older ideals still lurked in the trees, like the sinister or beguiling forest dwellings of fairytale.”
The autonomous rewilding of the former spaces of human activity is something we encounter often, perhaps, and it can be humbling to meditate upon the fact that however permanent the structures of human habitation may appear when built, it takes just a few years for them to overtaken by nature if they are not maintained. From simple concrete paths car parks, to disused airport runways and far more imposing edifices, none are immune from the march of nature over time.
Other works in this exhibition may be divided into three distinct groups for discussion here. First there are those that deal the theme of what I shall refer to as entanglement (a theme rather present in Forster’s work, too). Works by Mary Walters, Shona Grant, and Su Grierson with Brigid McCarthy might be seen to fall into the category or entanglement. In the case of Walters’ contribution, Encircled by the Forest, the artist presents a series of sketches created in a birch forest in Finland while on an artist's residency at Arteles Creative Centre near Tampere. Each was drawn looking towards one of the eight compass points, plus an additional image to make a neat set of nine paintings. Painted upon newspaper the surrounding forest that encircles the artist is here presented as though collaged frames from a scenographer’s storyboard; albeit one that is devoid of specific cinematic narrative.
Shona Grant makes such a scene more explicit in terms of our experience of entanglement through the use of photography. With a background in illustration and having worked as a freelance book illustrator for over twenty years, in 2014 Grant changed to her now chosen medium of photography to encourage a fresh approach to her output. “As a photographer,” she says, “I am drawn to the landscape and woodland […] perhaps because, having grown up on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides where there are no trees, I find them particularly engaging.”
Within the project Track and Trace artist Su Grierson, working with performer Brigid McCarthy, takes the theme of entanglement further by filming within the dark canopy of a large ancient yew hedge, working in the zone, as she refers to it, “where our usual senses are least comfortable.” Performance thus becomes the “connective tissue that create a one-ness with the place as limbs of the performer and the tree become united. By regulating the amount of light in the video the artist draws the viewer in to the experience of this rarely visited space.”
The second clear category of works that bear some resemblance of a connection to each other I here refer to as those that follow the theme of the ethereal, and in the true sense of the word – that is, those works that refer in some way to the extremely delicate otherworldliness of our woodlands and forests. The immediate work that springs to mind with regard the ethereal in this exhibition is that of Jana Emburey, an artist who was born in Slovakia where she studied art history and theatrical costume design, before moving to Scotland where she completed her BA Honours in Visual Art and now works in the Speyside area. In Immersed (2019) Emburey explores the concept of time perception, memory, inter-connectivity and what she refers to as the human condition.
Emburey’s work is informed, she says, by the close relationship of everything in nature (reflected and replicated in a multitude of ways). As she describes her practice, “Over the past few years I have been concentrating on intricate, cell-like ink drawings on Japanese paper, sometimes combined with painting, creating a body of work under the name of Sweet Oblivion. These delicate and labour intensive works represent human as well as any other cells/particles found in nature and show the connection of everything around and within us.”
Continuing, somewhat tentatively with the ethereal, here is also the work of Jenny Smith. As the exhibition literature states, “Smith’s work invites us to question what the definition of drawing is in its broadest sense? Exploring the relationship between traditional hand rendered processes and the new technology of laser cutting. Smith’s recent work depicts everyday plants and shrubs that are found in Scotland and have medicinal qualities. Inspired by botanical drawings, these limited edition prints have a soft, sepia, Victorian quality yet are created using the contemporary technology of laser engraving.”
Moving closer in to the minutiae of the woodland environment and its ethereal detail, we then encounter Alison Grant’s prints of Lichen, not dissimilar from Jana Emburey’s contribution to the show in some ways, for the detail of the flora in Grant’s work becomes at once an abstraction and representation of intricate patterns of what are considered composite organisms – lichens are not a single organism but stable symbiotic associations between what we commonly know as fungus and algae (cyanobacteria). They, like the great majority of woodland and forest organisms that we often take for granted, require carbon as their food source and are vital for the health of woodland ecosystems in which they are found. Zooming out, however, to the wider concept of the exhibition as a whole, in Grant’s work one might ask, is art imitating life here, or vice versa? Microcosm and Macrocosm become one in Grant’s work, as though we are at one and the same time staring down into a Petri dish and out into the cosmos.
Like Denise Zygadlo’s Persephone 3 (2017), the many species of orchid, some rare and some less so, that comprise the contribution to the exhibition from Gayle Nelson, introduce us to the flora of the woodland margins and floor, and interestingly in both cases the artists present colourful species of flora here in monochrome.
Nelson’s The Rarest Orchids in the World – an arrangement of 15 small monochrome paintings that depict orchids – are accompanied by a graphic document which identifies the name of each specimen and provides some information about its provenance. Orchids are, says the artist “fascinating objects of value and items of great beauty which have been used to create extravagant visitor attractions. They have a rich and intriguing history during periods of their discovery in distant and dangerous lands. The Ghost Orchid, included in this series, is a good example of a plant found 'amongst trees' and is very rare.”
The shift in category here moves towards what can only really be described as the celebratory. In that category we find works by Anne Russell, Kirtsy Lorenz (who recently showed her ‘Votive Offerings’ at Resipole Studios), Linda Kosciewicz, and the rather more expressionistic, fluid work of Tadeusz Deręgowski. All works in the celebratory category have a lightness of touch in the detail and a deftness of handling with regard to the variety of media that is utilised.
Click on above images to enlarge
Anne Russell’s Magnolia Stellata is an etching developed from studies made from the same that grows in her front garden; of which she says, “I have always enjoyed it’s almost magical feel, with delicate star-like flowers.” Kirsty Lorenz’s ‘Votive Offerings’ (of which Willow, Ease my Pain is a good example) have comprised her main body of work since 2014, and are series of portrayals of wild flower posies that she has made and left around Scotland (the example above being a composition that features a circle of Willow tree stems in bud, filled with yellow blooming Winter Aconite that flowers at the same time as the Willow buds). Linda Kosciewicz’s photograph Spring Song Japan 5 is the result of the artist’s visit to Japan to experience the phenomenon of cherry blossom and is confidently, beautifully composed, while Tadeusz Deręgowski’s Vargem Grande, 2017, was painted plein air in oils and executed on the Island of Santa Catarina, in the south of Brazil, which is notable for its great diversity of landscapes.
The remaining works in the exhibition offer more diverse and contemporary takes on the theme of the exhibition and for me fill in a lot of ‘blanks’ in terms of the sheer breadth of expression with regard our connection with the silvicultural (or arboreal) theme.
As Catherine Sargeant tell it, she has “been spending time in a forest by a croft in Wester Ross [which] is the same age as myself yet five times as tall. Each year more trees are blown down by the high winds. As I still stand I’ve involved myself in chopping and sawing up the wind blown trees for firewood. This immersion within the forest has resulted in painting aspects of both the natural forms of the forest and the man made tools used within it.” The result is an army of paintings hung according to precise instructions, all going to make up the whole of the experience she describes.
Mark Osborne’s contribution to the exhibition is part of an ongoing project produced in, and in response to, the Highlands of Scotland. Having relocated from Glasgow to the Black Isle, Osborne has found inspiration in his new surroundings and, in response, his works capture images of spaces and objects in the landscape. Here we find a sense of wonder and humour in equal measure if his work titled Ouch is in any way indicative of his wider practice since relocating.
The list of works and those included here are not exhaustive and there is much more to see than those selected. Nonetheless, the sheer breadth of this exhibition is a powerful reminder that our relationship with trees is something integral to our experience of nature as whole, whether through the absence of them – something expressed by Shona Grant from South Uist – or their abundance and beauty, as expressed by some many other artists currently exhibiting in the show.
According to my own taste, I find myself drawn most to the work of those I’ve framed as falling within the ethereal category : that is, the work of Jana Emburey, Jenny Smith, Alison Grant and extending to the more explicitly flora/floral-related work of Denise Zygadlo, Gayle Nelson, Kirsty Lorenz and others mentioned. Visitors to the exhibition will form their own opinions, however, much as we each relate to trees according to our own experience of them.
However you engage with the exhibition, one thing is for sure, there is something here to capture the imagination, something to intrigue, something to delight one’s senses and inevitably works that will challenge preconceptions of what an exhibition about Trees might include. Whatever your perspective on any of the works you encounter, Time Spent Amongst Trees in an exhibition from the SSA that offers much and I’m sure will not disappoint.
Time Spent Amongst Trees
A Society of Scottish Artists Exhibition
The Meffan Gallery
Until 2 November 2019
Meffan Museum and Art Gallery
20 West High Street
Tel: 01307 491771