Tree Woman - click the image to enlarge
What is our relationship to nature and to ourselves and other humans on this Earth? As I read The Spell of the Sensuous, a revolutionary book by ecologist and philosopher David Abram (Director of Alliance for Wild Ethics), I hear a powerful echo of the voice of my own paintings of the past 10 or so years. I love Abrams' book for many reasons, not the least of which is his eloquent celebration of the "animistic dimension of perception" and his scholarly and respectful explanation of how indigenous tribal people with oral cultures (as different from literate cultures like our own) understand nature in its human and non-human aspects.
After reading The Spell of the Sensuous, I changed the title of one of my paintings from Tree Goddess to Tree Woman. Why? The term 'goddess' or 'god' in modern Western culture has the (for me, unpalatable) connotation of a disembodied supernatural being who inhabits an eternal static realm, like God, Adonai, and the Virgin Mary up in Heaven, out of time and space. For me, Tree Woman is a primordial being, a woman who is also a tree, who lives in "mythic" time, like the Distant Time of the Koyukon Indians of Alaska, when humans and animals [and plants?] could take on each other's shapes and speak each other's language. For me, Tree Woman is alive today when I stand next to a tree and listen to the sound of its leaves in the breeze, or enjoy the cool shade under its branches, or watch the birds eat its fruit and children climb its sturdy branches. The tree's roots go deep into the ground, into the past, tracing the great spiral of evolution as one-celled organisms like bacteria became sponges and then mollusks and birds and elk. Trees have their own sensations, their own modes of intelligence or awareness: they sense the light, water, wind, length of daylight hours, and more. Abrams teaches us that because our minds have been imprinted with the alphabetic code known as writing, we moderns have lost much of our ability to hear not just the trees, but all the other animals, plants, landscapes and elements like wind and water — the More-Than-Human world — that make up our sensorial world, which is the truly only world we have to inhabit. It is only by participating in this more-than-human world, says Abrams, that we complete ourselves as humans.
Begonia Woman - click image to enlarge
The painting, Begonia Woman, began as a study of a begonia leaf, green on top and red on the underside, that had a particularly curly, undulating edge. As I started painting the veins of the leaf, I thought of the arteries of my body. At the center of the leaf, a red heart suggested itself, and from that heart the arteries that rise from the aorta. The woman appeared little by little, arms wide, floating on the water. Along the upper left edge of the leaf I depicted the internal parts of her body: intestines and the microscopic structures of her kidney. Just as the branching pattern of veins suggests the connection between humans and plants, so all visual patterns, like a language parallel to written texts, inform us of the connections between plants and people and the earth itself. Like many of my paintings, Begonia Woman and Tree Woman strive to awaken me and the viewer to what Abram calls "other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment." There is no physical place where a begonia leaf and a woman are one, yet, — I believe that Abram would agree — the painting shows us the truth of that inherent kinship.
ADDENDUM: For all you tree-lovers out there, The Baron in the Trees is a must-read. Written by Italy's great Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees recounts the adventures of an 18th century boy of noble birth who climbs up a tree, refuses to come down, and spends the rest of his life inhabiting a vast arboreal kingdom.