The Tree Creatures at the Rensing Center
The Rensing Center artist residency was a great opportunity for me to explore the nature and culture of Western South Carolina. Or more precisely, to make a connection between the two. My goal was to create a series of tree paintings that explored the idea of “A spirit of the place”. I began the three week residency in July 2015 by having discussions with quite a few people in the community. I asked them to tell me about stories or legends they know about or from the area, different historical events, their personal views of the people of Pickens County where we were, and how the area had changed and their relationship to the land. Different moments that felt meaningful at the residency included:
- The loudness of the creatures of the night, crickets, cicadas, bull forge and who knows what else, and their blending of sounds.
- The darkness, and the clarity of the night sky. I am pretty sure i saw our galaxy.
- Being at the top of a mountain with John F, with him explaining the geology of the area.
- Being at Haygood Mill and seeing the machinery of the stream driven mill, seeing a bow maker, chair caning, bobbin pin work and a moonshine still.
- Sitting around the bonfire listening to stories with residents and staff.
- Seeing the history of the area at the Pickens museum
- The drive through the mountains to the Cherokee reservation
- Talking with Chad at the Feed store and listening to some of the local people stop by and talk
- In a sense, having my outdoor time determined by the weather, i.e, mornings or early evenings for working.
- swimming in the lakes
- The wonder of the library, which I only barely had time to delve into.
- Great discussions with Ellen about sustainability and art, and the challenges and successes now.
I started doing some research about the Cherokee in Philadelphia, looking at some of their beliefs, art work, history, and stories. While in Pickens, I learned a little about the lives of African Americans through online slave stories, and other web sites focused on life in the early part of the 20th century. I studied the basic history of white people in the area, viewing the great exhibits in the Pickens history museum, focusing on their involvement with native americans, early colonization and slavery, some mid 20th century reading, and discussions about attitudes today.
It was, at times, a bit of struggle to paint for four hours in the heat, with swarms of mosquitos and bees flying around. But a good natural insect repellent was mostly successful in keeping them at bay, and I usually found my joy after about an hour. The Alder Trail is an excellent wooded area and great home for these works as they slowly age away. I kind of jumped around a bit, using images and ideas from all the cultures that have lived in this area. I think I was somewhat successful in creating images
inspired by all these stories and histories, and in that sense, taking cumulatively, as a group, this forest installation can represent a sense, or spirit of
this part of Pickens County, SC.
The multi ethnic man was my initial and perhaps somewhat literal attempt to represent all the cultures, White people of European ancestry, African-Americans, and Native Americans, as represented by skin color, that have been here. So red, pink and brown stripes on a simple running figure.
Wild Hog is a representation of wild hogs that live and roam in the area. Brought in for hunting, they escaped and run free, mucking up farmers patches now and then. I liked the image of a kind of trickster figure.
Isaqueena is the Cherokee legend of the tribeswoman who galloped across the county to warn her English lover, naming all the streams and paths. But the image shows her later in life, jumping into a waterfall,and landing on a ledge, to escape pursuers. I love her bravery and connection to the land.
The Healer is a presentation of a character closest to nature in three different cultures: the Green Man from English history, the shaman from Native American society, and the shaman of African tribal life. One can see the leaves of the Green man, the white face paint of the African tribesman, and the feathers and headband of the Native American. These figures are both documents of my studies, and also an attempt to make an intercultural connection about the possibility of man becoming closer to nature.
Man and Beast is based on an Assyrian sculpture of around 500 BC. I related it to Chad, the farmer who has cows and goats here, so he is dressed like Chad, with blue jeans and a ball cap. I like the idea of interdependence between man and beast, as one way to look at our relationship with animals.
Chad even had a picture of himself with a sheep around his neck (different symbolism) which he forwarded to me. When I was looking for the right tree to paint on ( it needed to be smoother like a Beech), the cows were sitting on the other side of the fence,which allowed me to work the cows head and legs from life. They were great models and we talked a bit.
John and the mountains is a straight forward attempt at creating a meshing of images between John Fritz, a landscape designer who helps out a lot here, and gave us the mountain tour, and an image of the Blue Ridge mountains. It is an attempt to create a figure who is filled with the mountain.
Pan, god of the forests is a depiction of the Greek god of nature, which covers a lot. He is an earlier Pagan religious figure. He is sitting playing his Pan-pipes, on a tree stump in the woods. Lately, I have been thinking of the idea of re-mythologizing or re-enchanting the forest. The woods could be seen as a place of magical beings, a place of mystery and unseen manifestations. of stories and history, and a place with so much spirit that no one would think of tearing it down. A way to connect the environmental necessity of preserving the forests with the human desire for meaning.
The goats on the farm here are always calling out and somewhat inspired this figure as well. I had taken pictures of the goats to study their legs for this image.
The Bow Weevil is a stylized monstrous depiction of the insect that destroyed much of the cotton industry in Pickens in the early part of the 20th century. According to Chad, strict safeguards are now in place to prevent this insect from taking over again, but the amount of cotton produced here is much less, as most farmers switched their fields to grazing cows, goats, sheep and chickens, as well as harvesting timber every 20 years.