Monday, February 7, 2011

Monsters are out there: "The Tree that Almost Brained Me"

There's no need to invent monsters. They're out there. Little kids know they live under the bed, and while that variety are notoriously elusive, others present themselves brazenly, out in the open, prepared to be sketched or photographed. I know, because I've seen them. And one nearly fell on my head.

It was June 2006, and I was at Emma Lake, Northern Saskatchewan, the historic location of a summer art school dating back to the 1930s and particularly famous for the abstract painters who convened there in the sixties. Happy to be accepted for a week's stay in this prestigious place, I had looked forward to working with artists more experienced than myself. Things did not turn out quite as expected.

I arrived late in the day after two flights and a bus ride. When the Director of what is now Kenderdine Campus of the University of Saskatchewan picked me up, he said it had been raining for days, but that the weather was about to improve. Meanwhile the mosquitoes were enjoying a population explosion. His other news was more startling: low enrolment and last-minute cancellations meant that I was the ONLY student expected for that week. Moreover, he had to leave that night for an early morning meeting in Saskatoon, the artist-in-residence, a poet, was yet to arrive, and the cook and other staff had gone home. In other words, after a quick tour of the joint and a makeshift supper, I was to be left all alone for the night!

Strangely, after some initial consternation, I felt perfectly safe and comfortable in my solitary splendour, and after that night there were always people around. Being the "only child" I was thoroughly indulged. I had the best cabin, right on the lakeshore and relatively free of the insatiable  mosquitoes in the forest. I worked on my art project all day on the deck, shielded from the hot sun, which did materialize as promised, by a big green umbrella. I stopped only to eat and to enjoy the company and conversation of the Director and the poet. It was an idyllic week, punctuated only by the abrupt appearance of the Monster.

It happened one perfectly calm evening towards the end of my stay. The two men had gone fishing, the cook had once again gone home, and I was relaxing happily on my deck, enjoying the peace and the setting sun. There was a sudden rustling up above, and then a huge chunk of tree came crashing down, missing my cabin and the next one over and ME by a few feet.

By the time I'd recovered from the shock it was getting dark, so I waited until the next day to have a close look at my near-nemesis. It was a dead birch, completely rotted through and richly encrusted with lichens. It was also, as you can see from my photo, a prehistoric beast chewing up its prey. 

I didn't paint my tree until 2010. It seemed important to me to portray it quite large and with thick texture, to acknowledge its massiveness and lethal power. My main concern was to do justice to both sides of its character; it did look like a monster, but it was really just a dead tree. I felt I had been successful in balancing the two sides when at the Eastside Culture Crawl in November some visitors saw one aspect first, and some the other.

The painting is looking for a good home. It makes a strong statement and is 24" x 42". I can visualize it in a cedar-and-glass house with generous indoor/outdoor spaces, and real trees outside the windows to keep it company.

Next time:  Cosy or Queasy? "Foreign Hotel"

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