Who Am I? Exhibition
D.H. Lawrence Tree, 2011
Ellen Wagener (American, b. 1964)
Pastel on paper
Purchased by University Museums. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
When I first saw the epic painting titled, Sky Above Clouds, in the Art Institute of Chicago I fell hopelessly head-over-heels for Georgia O'Keeffe. I was in high school, then and there I vowed to paint. I had always wanted to be an artist but this painting convinced me I was an artist.
The Lawrence Tree was painted by O'Keeffe while visiting a cabin previously occupied by the English novelist D. H. Lawrence during a summer visit in 1929. The tiny cabin, owned by the socialite and arts patron Mabel Luhan Dodge, is surrounded by an endless ponderosa pine forest north of Taos, New Mexico. O'Keeffe referred to the painting as "the Lawrence tree" and the name stuck.
The painting by O'Keeffe is entirely different than the one I chose to paint. A romantic inky cobalt blue sky and sharp piercing stars punctuate the canopy and the night sky of the O'Keeffe painting. Like O'Keeffe, I laid my head against the trunk of the tree and looked up into the spreading canopy. My experience with the tree was enough to help me remember everything about the majestic pine when I returned to my studio.
I like to lose myself when I'm working alone in my studio. Working quickly with just black-and-white pastels and a razor blade, the painting reveals itself in endless layers of drawing on top of drawing.
The trick is to entirely forget about what you're doing and just remember the experience of the pine tree overhead. This requires nothing but remembering and simultaneously forgetting what you're doing and letting the experience take over you. If anything, it is like trying to lose yourself in a meditative hallucination.
From a distance, my hyper-detailed black-and-white drawings mimic the intimacy and detail of large format photography. Every twig, every tesserae of bark, every pine needle is shown with hysterical attention.
But if you step closer and look you see the illusion dissipate; hardly a photograph, it's a welter of scribble with lines twisting off this way and that, almost as frantic as the paint splatters of a Jackson Pollock painting. Hopefully the artwork causes in the inventive looker a kind of perceptual effervescence that prevents the image from seeming too “banal."
My hope is you will take the time to lay your head against a tree and look up into the canopy and the sky overhead. Let the experience wash over you, breathe deeply, and softly whisper, "thank you."
It is said that trees have a secret life. If this is so, the secret must lie hidden beneath the craggy bark, sheltered below the majestic, heaven-reaching crown. For there, under the lifeless ridges and furrows, courses a stream of water and minerals, ever upward to collide with the riches of carbon gleaned from the atmosphere. Quietly, secretly, these simplest of ingredients assemble to both nourish and build the wonderous Ponderosa pine on which you now gaze. And still deeper within the stately tree, the glowing orange heartwood boasts of strength and beauty, fragrant and pleasant, bespeckled with a feature the woods-worker knows as dimples. Yes, the secrets found within are surely marvels to behold.
Under this tree, chiseled by ages of struggle in the wild lands of New Mexico, writers, painters, and souls of many walks of life have contemplated time and their place in it. Trees seem to connect uniquely with the human spirit, as we, too, sense a secret life within. Whence do we find these emotions and thoughts? Could it be that we, earth-bound creatures, long to reach upward with the tree, casting our eyes to a place beyond that frees us from our earthly troubles? We are both exhilarated and bewildered by the complexity of life, just as Wagener’s pastel compels one to look ever deeper into the intricacy of her drawing, beguiling at first, appearing as a photograph. Inward and upward climbs our gaze and our thoughts, reaching beyond time.
Mortal beings, we, too often see the world around and then turn inward with fears unspoken. The tree, itself mortal, knows no such fear. Its place is fixed, and yet it grows, in satisfied dignity. So perhaps, our wandering, by comparison, is one facet of our discontent. Place to place, empty thought to empty thought, festering fear to festering fear. Maybe we are finding that we aren’t so smart, after all. Could it be that we cannot be our own saviors? Hubris discards the notion.
As though in repose beneath the D.H. Lawrence Tree, my own thoughts are irresistibly pulled aloft, leaving behind the anxiety that has become a hallmark of our modern world. An ancient Psalm says that the trees of the forest sing for joy alongside jubilant fields and resounding seas, exulting in hope of a better day, one in which justice and righteousness will rule the earth. Our longing human souls would do well to join in this joyous chorus.
Douglas D. Stokke
Teaching Professor, Natural Resource Ecology and Management