Being With Trees
In BEING WITH TREES the Arborealists bring a contemporary response to trees by artists from both urban and rural environments. These painters and printmakers are associated with two contemporary organisations: the Arborealists, which includes artists from the South West, South East, Yorkshire, London and Wales, France and Ireland, and the Urban Contemporaries, artists who live in London and celebrate trees and the vital role they play in all our lives in terms of our well-being, identity, sociability and our understanding of ecology and climatic change. As the author Hermann Hesse observed: When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.
At a time of international anxiety about the existential threats of the effects of global warming, the role of nature and trees in the nation’s capital city has never been more pertinent. It has been estimated that we need to plant two billion trees, as soon as possible, in an attempt to avert disaster. This exhibition thus aims, with a political slant, to raise awareness of the importance of trees in the lives of Londoners. Themes and issues explored in this exhibition are street architecture, urban decoration, ecological dimensions, wildlife habitats, the mythical, the allegorical, the symbolic, our psychological equilibrium and well-being, trees in opposition to or in harmony with buildings, depositories of history and bearing witness, unexpected trees in unexpected places, iconic and loved trees, nuisance and unloved trees or diseased trees and trees as boundary markers, noise excluders or barriers against pollution. Trees are in fact the lungs of London!
In 2013, when performance, installation and video dominated the art scene, there was little chance to show figurative painting in a major museum or gallery until Tim Craven and Steve Marshall, both senior curators for Southampton City Council, got together and curated Under the Green Wood: Picturing the British Tree (2013). From this exhibition, at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in the New Forest, the Arborealists emerged as a movement. The art critic Andrew Lambirth wrote an illuminating review of the exhibition, which appeared at the time to be so at odds with the prevailing trends. Under the Green Wood included works by John Constable, Paul Nash, Samuel Palmer and Graham Sutherland, alongside contemporary artists as Graham Arnold, Philippa Beale, David Nash and Michael Porter, whose works focus on trees and forests and who have developed new perceptions of the language of painting.
Following the Under the Green Wood exhibition Tim Craven invited well known British painters whose work concentrated on trees to join him in the Arborealists, establishing this group as an ecological, conservationist art movement, which did not hark back to any historical concept of what painting should be. In fact, it was important that they renewed the art of painting with new perceptions of mark-making to develop a contemporary language that owed everything to observation. While it has been followed by other major exhibitions about trees, the Arborealist were certainly the first group of artists in the 21st century to concentrate on this most important topic at this critical time in our evolution.
In 2017 Rachel Cooke of The Guardian described the Arborealists as a loose collection of artists that came together believing they took their inspiration from the Brotherhood of Ruralists. She descibed their work as broadly Romantic but not precluding the possibiltiy of abstraction, as inspiringly lush produced by people who really can paint.
The Urban Contemporaries is a fluid group of figurative painters started by Frank Creber and Ferha Farooqui. They aim to explore different approaches to the concept of contemporary communities in urban environments. They create ambitious responses to the urban experience, responding in ways that are of interest to their individual practice. Using drawing as a starting point and painting as the common medium, the human figure in urban surroundings is a dominant motif. They aim to reflect the many varied ‘voices’ of contemporary society and create themed work that reflects upon the urban condition.
Artists from the Urban Contemporaries include Michael Johnson, Sarah Lowe, Grant Watson, Melissa Scott Miller, Susanne du Toit, Sharon Beavan, Michael Major, Annette Fernando, Elizabeth McCarten, artists who portray the integration of trees into London communities and the varied effects trees have on regeneration and the ever changing skyline. Their work gives a symbolic, apocalyptic dimension to the exhibition.
Being with Trees also includes work from artists who have caught a glimpse of the importance of trees within our culture, who understand the polemic concerning the influence and the signification of trees and our natural environment. These are Angela Rumble, Elizabeth Hannaford, Les Williams, Day Bowman, Susan Shields, Gary Cook, Pat Phippard, Ursula Leach, Rachel Sargent, Karen Keogh.
We share 75% of our DNA with trees. Without trees we die. They are our lungs, they provide shelter and fuel for humans and animals. Terrible war crimes and destruction have taken place in forests. In Eastern Europe trees were worshipped. The height of trees and the wonder of being in a forest inspired the builders of great temples and cathedrals. Trees certainly have their political side and certain types of forests and groves are signifiers of our greater culture: the lonely as grove; of loss and longing; Sherwood Forest; of justice against tyranny.
The stories relating to forest and groves are manifold, but they are also real places. We think of the great oaks of England, but a sessile oak forest provides fast growing wood for fuel and shelter for flora and fauna. The point of tree paintings is that they contain messages about caring for our resources and the way we treat all living creatures and other forest dwellers like ourselves. We only have the same rights as the animals but we have a duty to preserve and conserve the trees and act with ‘kindness’ to the natural world. As artists we wish, not to illustrate or to paint within a school or -ism, but to be original and respect what we saw when we were there.