My studio is shaded by two big black walnut trees. I’m kind of in love with them. They have this huge, green, calming presence that settles my nerves and makes me want to write and make art about the beauty, intricacy and wisdom that I feel radiating from the natural world around me. Somehow, they link me into a more solid reality than my fleeting human worries and ambitions.
Living on a riverside farm and working on the art program at Adkins Arboretum, I think I can safely claim that I know something of the power that nature has on creative work. After all, nature is all about creativity. We who work in the arts do well when we follow its lead.
I also know something about climate change. While politicians stupidly argue about whether it’s real, I see the river rippling up into the marsh beside our house every new moon and full moon and too often, watch it creep around the trees at the edge of our yard and lap across the lawn ever closer to the corner of our house. And I cringe at how the top leaves of our coral bark maple, which a friend of ours raised from a seed, have turned crinkly brown each of these past three Augusts, and I grieved last year when the red bud we planted at the edge of the yard succumbed to saltwater intrusion.
Like nearly everyone else these days, I’m gazing at a glowing screen as I type these words. But through incredible good luck (and many years of hard work), I’m sitting not in an air-conditioned cubicle or even a carpeted living room, but beside a screen door where the sound of cicadas blows in with the breeze and the dappled light filtering through the black walnut leaves dances across the floor.
Most people these days live in the artificial light and air and sound of indoors. Most people know climate change as a news story, another “issue” on the long list we should be addressing. Those of us who spend a lot of time outdoors feel it in our bones.
Generations ago, people lived on the land and were attuned to its daily and seasonal changes. Every indigenous culture had stories about their land, stories which told them when the winter would come and the spring thaw, how to conjure the stealth to stalk deer, and which trees to go to for food and medicine.
The old stories are lost and forgotten along with an instinctive love for the land and the innate need to honor it. Watching what’s happening to this good earth, I’ve often wondered whether I could’ve served better by going into the sciences—ecology leaps to mind—in order to help stem the tide of environmental degradation. But while we need science to help us comprehend the complexities of our ecological systems, we also need art. It’s the artists who are searching out the stories, tapping into archetypal truths, and working to recover a deep understanding of our relationship with the earth.
Ecoart is a rapidly expanding genre. Look it up in Wikipedia and you’ll find citations dating back more than half a century, but these days, you find it everywhere. More and more artists are concentrating on environmental issues, more and more galleries and museums are presenting shows focused on their work. Throughout history, artists have been in the vanguard of change, and what we need now is a thorough change in our outlook toward how to live harmoniously on this fragile earth.
It’s really smart of MassoniArt to focus this show on trees. Climate change is a huge subject encompassing literally all aspects of life on earth. It’s daunting to even think about it. But a tree, that’s something we can relate to. Trees stand upright, like we do. They grow and change with the seasons. They give us shade and make our landscape beautiful, and they are potent symbols in our mythologies and our religions. Possibly more than any other living being, trees give us a visceral, one-on-one sense of the presence of the natural world.
It’s that visceral feeling that engages us, that makes a towering tree, a swooping osprey or a sunlit landscape real to us, that pulls at the heartstrings. If you’re sitting in front of a glowing screen ensconced in the virtual world, how will you know that the natural balance is so far off-kilter? And why would you care?
If you’re not physically present in the natural world, if you don’t go outside, it’s easy to ignore the changes in our environment and to live in complacency. But step out the door and feel the stifling heat. Notice the dying trees at the river’s edge where rising water has undercut their roots.
Let me make a seemingly simplistic statement: Our problem is that too many people these days don’t have friends who are trees. Trees teach us about growth and patience, about the cycle of the seasons, about cooperation (have you ever noticed how trees growing in close proximity will make space for one another’s branches?), about being intimate with the physical earth. Spend a little time with the artworks in this exhibit. Feel the fecund innocence of the leaves and flowers growing along Emily Kalwaitis’s young girl’s thigh, let the impenetrable black of Grace Mitchell’s primordial forest send prickles of fear up your spine, see your own face mirrored in the heart of Ken Schiano’s leafy tree.
It’s important to be aware of the accumulating facts about rising water, changing weather patterns and soaring extinction rates, but these teach the rational mind what’s happening. It’s equally vital to open the heart and the soul to the challenges we must face. When we do this, we embrace something deeper than data-crunching, we dip into the creative depths of nature itself. And there we may indeed find the impetus and the wisdom to address this catastrophic situation.
“Trees” is on view at MassoniArt September 6 through October 13. For more information, visit www.massoniart.com.
Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.