I normally steer clear of symbolic images from popular culture, preferring instead to stay safely wrapped in my own obscure personal iconography. I like my comfortable world of diminutive landscapes, little trees, tiny animals, and falling leaves. I like making small-scale pictures with places to wander and stories to tell. But there is a time and place for creating a bolder, singular statement. I genuinely love holiday traditions, so I decided to take on the challenge of the iconic Thanksgiving turkey. (Christmas Trees, you are next!) I could hear the groans of my inner critic, screaming “Don’t do it! It will be trite! It will be a cliché! It is impossible to pull off!” Smiling to myself, I continued on. Using a combination of collage papers, charcoal, ink pen, colored India Inks, and acrylic paint, I reveled in the rich textures and colors of turkey feathers. I enjoyed each sweep of the charcoal, every small stroke of the pen, the fervent flow of colorful ink, and the tactile release of each blob of paint. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to sit here in my studio and create, choosing curiosity over fear. When I was almost finished decorating every feather, I discovered that my turkey had a message for me. It came first in a whisper, and then in a loud, warbling, joyful voice. So I scribbled this message on a piece of paper and glued it right onto the collage: “Be thankful for your Colorful Life.”
I have a favorite tree in our back yard. It was not planted to commemorate a special occasion, or in honor of a family member. It is not an exotic cultivar, or even an especially ornamental flowering species. It is a simple Black Gum with a simple story. Our landscape designer chose the Black Gum for two reasons. It is one of the first trees to change color in the fall– a brilliant red. This seemed reason enough, but there was something else. The Black Gum is characterized by a straight upright trunk, with sturdy branches that grow horizontally outward at right angles. Why might this structural feature be important? “For a swing,” said the landscape designer. As soon as this idea was released, it planted itself in my imagination. I had a tree swing when I was a girl. Now I could have another one! How long would it take before the tree was big enough to hold a swing? Ten years, twenty years? Would I watch my little boy grow into a teenager who would swing on that swing, or is it for me… and the grandchildren? Would I still even live here in twenty years? As soon as the tree was planted, it marked a moment in time from which I would measure the passing years. The tree became a slow stop watch. What can I create and accomplish between now and the time when the Black Gum is ready for its swing? The tree is planted at the top of a steep slope, so that when you swing out over the edge of the retaining wall, where the land falls away, you will feel like you are flying. Who will I have become when I sail through the air on that swing?
We planted the Black Gum three years ago. It was very spindly at first, with a sparse dotting of leaves. I fussed over it, diligently watering its roots each week. Tiny green aphids gathered on its fresh new growth in sticky clumps, which I crushed with my fingers every time I walked past, or occasionally sprayed with soap. The second summer the tree began to fill out with a fuller canopy, and the aphids moved on to weaker hosts. It went through curious growth spurts like a gangly child, where the top would shoot straight up a good twelve inches with no side branches, only to burst forth with a big bundle of leaves at its tip, as if it were balancing an outlandish hat on the end of a broomstick. The third summer it grew more handsome and sturdy, with a thick flush of deep green foliage, the glossy leaves turning a spotty red and gold in September. This Fall, Grandma and Max planted daffodil bulbs in the mulch circle around its base. Yellow and white blooms will appear in early Spring. Now I have something to look forward to that is not as far away as the swing. You know you are growing older when a mere five month wait feels like instant gratification.
This collage is about the passing of time, growth, patience, and how a landscape can tell our stories across the past, present, and future.