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Commentary: Trees serve as both symbols and inspiration in art


It's autumn and we can't miss the trees. Pamela Selbert, special writer for the Post-Dispatch, says, "Just when you think you can't stand one more day of simmering on summer's griddle, fall arrives. Ah, fall--so welcome. Of course along with it comes shorter days and cooler temperatures.

Then before long, the trees abandon their summer greens for showier hues, and woods become tapestries of vibrant color Missouri is famous for."

Trees are often symbols of life in literature, song and music and all the arts. There is the tree of life with its symbolic roots, trunk and crown." Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum. You came along and things started to hum."

Books have been written on specific trees and their mystical and mythological meanings in life and religion.

Many artists throughout the years have used trees in their works as symbols. Olive trees were used in many of Van Gogh's works as well as the paintings of Salvador Dali. And the fig trees in paintings of Adam and Eve represent lust and fertility.

Trees are the most explicit symbol of growth, seasonal death, and revival and renewal. Trees have been part and parcel of folklore and nowadays a tree for some ethnic groups is a totem of a remote ancestor or tribe.

Trees have had significant meaning in literature, especially in Christian literature. The tree of knowledge is mentioned repeatedly and I found an article on line which mentioned eight trees and their spiritual meaning. There are books galore discussing trees and their meaning.

An example of the tree as a religious or spiritual symbol is shown as Siddhartha embarks on a soul searching journey while sitting under the peepal tree, now known as the Bodhi Tree. He has many revelations while sitting under this tree.

MOCRA (Museum of Contemporary Religious Art) on the Saint Louis University campus just had an exhibition which featured Lesley Dill's work in a show titled "Dream World of the Forest." Dill is fascinated by the wilderness as a physical and psychic landscape. She grew up in the shadowed Adirondacks and Maine woods. These works reminded me of the eerie trees in "The Wizard of Oz."

And there are trees galore in the current exhibition at Laumeier Sculpture Park, “Forest Through the Trees." Curator Dana Turkovic said, "For years I have been surrounded by trees in the park, and looked at the trees surrounding the art and decided to create a show including artists from around the world who represented trees as a subject rather than an object." These trees are not the background but the forefront of the work.

My two favorite works were by Andrew Millner from St. Louis and Miler Lagos of Colombia. For Lagos, the tree is an expression of knowledge, time and the perfection of nature's design. To recreate the tree's concentric rings in this work, Lagos unfolded, stacked and layered thousands of pages to create the cross-section of a tree, examining the complex association between business and nature, commodities and culture.

Millner, like a botanist, catalogues actual plants and trees by painstakingly recreating them with a digital stylus pen, transferring the plants and trees into the computer by drawing their contours as simple outlines. From his thousands of botanical drawings he has developed an extensive archive of plant imagery that he sources to create compositions that investigate the relationship between art and nature, questioning our role in the natural world and human-made world of manicured landscapes.

Trees are incredibly complex, but can't do everything. For example, I talk to the trees, but they don't listen to me --a song from the musical "Paint Your Wagon."

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.

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