Art and Ecology: Understory

Two of the Rensing Center’s missions are Ecology and Creativity. In my residency this May, I pursued a project at an intersection of these two issues.
Blackjack Oak with Climbing Hydrangea, 12"x8", oil on paper

Blackjack Oak with Climbing Hydrangea, 12"x8", oil on paper

I began making small paintings of trees at the Rensing Center. Initially, my concerns were aesthetic: Explorations of green, a color I rarely work with. I was attracted by the variety that occurred as light interacted with the translucent leaves, creating dozens of blues, greens, yellows, and violets. I wanted to track the shifts in color across the structure of the trees, abstracted against an empty background. I was excited by the complex light environment created by the architecture of the different trees, and how that architecture defined patterns of color. I focused on small, understory trees which allowed me to comprehend the entire tree in a single image.
Hickory (leaning), 12"x8", oil on paper

Hickory (leaning), 12"x8", oil on paper

As the paintings progressed, the trees required more intimacy and understanding. They were shaped by their species and by their context. Some understory trees may live only a few years in the herbal layer, and languish on the dim forest floor. Larger trees either occupy the understory permanently- living in the half-light, or as adolescents reaching for light on their way to the canopy. The trees record reaching up, reaching over, reaching down, for patches of sunlight. Some lean hard or change direction as the canopy changes.IMG_20140507_152028 The genetics of each tree species determine its form and patterns of growth, but many trees in the understory bear the patterns of damage and recovery. As the canopy changes and neighboring trees fall, many of the understory trees are limbed, bowed, and split by the falling timber- recovering into strange forms.
White Oak, 12"x8", oil on paper

White Oak, 12"x8", oil on paper

While these paintings are far from scientific, they are based in a process that underpins both art and science: direct observation of nature. Careful, focused observation is a primary principle of art and of ecology. After a few hours of earnest attention, patterns reveal themselves, new information surfaces, questions arise. These paintings are a documentation of those hours, and several weeks earnestly listening to the understory.
Re-Maple, 12"x8", oil on paper

Re-Maple, 12"x8", oil on paper

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