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The Arts

Trees as a metaphor for life

Curtain goes up on new exhibits at BMAC

BRATTLEBORO—It was two weeks before the opening of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center’s new show, “Bridging Earth and Sky.” Most of the walls were still stark naked and there was a feeling of excitement about being backstage, so to speak.

After all, putting on a museum show is much like opening a show on Broadway. After a great deal of research, writing, thinking, talking, collecting, painting, nail-banging, fabric-hanging, and scene shifting, opening day comes and the bare space comes alive with color, texture, design, ideas, meaning, movement, and people.

At BMAC, the curtain goes up on three multi-artist exhibits a year in six galleries and the new sculpture garden — an impressive average of 12 to 15 exhibits a year of varying sizes.

That is a lot of activity happening under the direction of the museum’s dramatic chief curator, Mara Williams, who was busy one recent day shaping “Bridging the Earth and Sky” before it opens on March 31.

The show, which runs until July 8, captures people’s fascination with trees.

“The show is about trees as a metaphor for life, as a metaphor for family, as the oldest living things on the planet,” Williams says.

“The oldest living thing on the planet is a bristle cone pine in the White Mountains of California,” she continues. “It’s known to be more than 4,600 years old.”

The show poses some questions for museumgoers, she says: “What’s our relationship to trees? What do we think when see a big tree, an important tree or a tree that’s important to us — like that beautiful pear tree in the back yard planted in memory of our grandmother, that’s now a big pear tree because it’s been many years since our grandmother died? Why do trees speak to us?”

“In every culture, in every major text of every major religion, the tree is used as a symbol or metaphor or analog of our body and the rootedness of our being,” Williams points out.

Fragments of the soon-to-be-dazzling show were all around. The art for the “Witness Trees” segment was lined up against a wall, most of it still wrapped in bubble wrap or contained in specially-built cartons.

Julia Zanes’ colorful paintings lay on the floor in the Center Gallery, leaning against the walls on which they will soon be hung. Some of the work for the “Sylvan Forms” show is piled on a table.

Only one show, Brazilian photographer Valdir Cruz’s “Raizes” (“Roots”) — stark, dark, dramatic, and stunning photographs of rain forest trees — is hung. Outside, sculptor John Gerding is stacking wood — ”Making something interesting out of something I have to do,” he says.

In the main gallery, artist Gabriella Senza, standing on an electrified lift that made whooping crane noises as she moved it up and down, is delicately “painting” a large tree directly on the wall.

Instead of brushes, she dips her fingertips into soft graphite. She is trying to create a grey, shadowy suggestion of a tree, and it was literally growing as she worked.

“There is an elm tree in the Berkshires, where I live, that is especially beautiful, and I have that in my mind as I work, Senza says.

“I put the graphite on my fingertips and wipe the extra off my hands,” she says. “I use no moisture except the oils on my skin. And if I get nervous or sweat, the graphite will go on too black. It’s quite an interesting process.”

Senza’s tree is the centerpiece of the show “Drawing on the Sky,” curated by Williams.

“I will say this without shame,” Williams says. “I really believe in the ‘wow’ factor.”

“I always have a focal point,” she says. “The ‘Wow’ factor for this show is that I’m having a mural of a tree done temporarily in the museum. The tree will be visible until the last day of the show, when Gabriella will paint it over as a performance piece, accompanied by a lecture.”

Another show, “Witness Trees,” curated by former Boston Globe art critic Christine Temin, will include pieces of furniture — a stool, made of rope and ribs, that reflects slavery; a chair with a tree growing out of its back — that are made out of wood from venerable trees that once grew on land protected by the National Park Service.

The park service is not allowed to sell the wood, so when one of these trees has to be cut down, it calls the Rhode Island School of Design. As part of its ongoing “Witness Tree Project,” the school salvages the wood, discusses the provenance of the particular tree in class — maybe one comes from a Civil War site or the home of a president or other famous figure — and then students make objects out of the wood.

In an interesting interactive segment, the creation of painter and educational curator Susan Calabria, visitors can help grow a tree. On the back wall of the dark, enclosed space of the Mary Sommer Room, Calabria has drawn the outline of a giant, leafless tree, from which visitors will be encouraged to make leaves of any size and shape and hang them.

“We’ll have all different kinds of materials here, and these foam ’stickies,’ and people can put their leaves on the walls,” Calabria says. “Every week I’ll go in and move some of them up. We’ll open with no leaves on the trees, and we’ll end the exhibit on July 8 with a tree, hopefully, full of leaves.”

Calabria also curated Zanes’ exhibit of paintings in the Center Gallery. Called “The Golden Game,” it is the only part of the exhibit that does not relate directly to trees.

“Julia was working on a series of paintings that had to do with games, game boards, gold, and its use in alchemy — the fact that people in Medieval Europe were trying to turn base metals into gold,” Calabria says.

“She was reading a lot of Carl Jung on art, alchemy, and the collective unconscious. She’s also very invested in fairy tales. Her favorite saying, which she bases on the story of Scheherazade, is ‘Narrate or die.’ She has this impulse to narrate, to tell stories, to tell fables and layer them story over story. She puts all this together in her paintings.”

In the South Gallery, a show called “Heritage Trees” showcases images of amazing, stunning, sometimes ancient trees from all over the world — including Beth Moon’s photograph of the 4,600-year-old bristle cone pine.

There’s a mysterious image by Sally Gall of a long root system dripping down a hole in the earth, as well as a powerful collaged image of a thousand-year-old tree from Vietnam and Christine Triebert’s misty portrait of Green Mountain Orchards in Putney.

Museum shows like “Bridging the Earth and Sky” represent a great deal of time, thought, talent, and generosity. None of the many artists who contribute their work is paid, although there is a small honorarium for site-specific work.

But the museum plays to a very educated audience, and being displayed has its own rewards.

“It’s considered an honor to show in a museum — any museum,” Williams said. “And we have a very good reputation.”

“I always say, every time, these shows would not be possible without a generous donation of time. The art dealers who loan me work that keeps the work out of circulation for three months. The private collectors who are willing to live without the work for three months. It’s what makes any museum go around, but ours in particular.

“We do not sell work, but some collectors buy work that they see here. It is not unusual for some collectors from our region to buy regional artists after they’ve had a show here. You know, it’s not unusual.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #145 (Wednesday, March 28, 2012).

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