I’m often asked why I’ve chosen to draw trees and the honest answer is that I really don’t know, I just found myself doing it and now I can’t stop.
It’s a subject that has so many layers of historic, cultural and symbolic meaning and such visual variety that I know I’ll never get bored. In a way, having that constraint on my choice of subject has made me feel more free to experiment with materials and forms of expression.
However, it’s also true to say that there are many things that have influenced my artistic journey to this point and, since it’s Father’s Day, I’ll give the credit to my dad.
Introducing Tony Lee – Woodturner, who died in 2007 but still keeps an eye on me in my studio. He’s pictured here in his own workshop, surrounded by the tools of his trade and looking justifiably pleased with himself, having created his own business in the dark times of the mid eighties. His first workshop was the garden shed where he taught me to turn on the lathe, cut a mortise and sand to a silky finish. I also learned about the quirks and qualities of wood as a material – how it continues to move long after it’s been cut.
I have some of his calipers in my studio now (you can see them to the left of him in the picture).
So you could say that trees have been a theme in family life as I grew up and going back a further generation this was also the case.
My grandparents lived in Worksop Nottinghamshire, close to Sherwood Forest and the Welbeck, Rufford and Clumber estates, otherwise known as ‘The Dukeries’. We spent many a happy Sunday travelling the countryside in their Hillman Imp and the highlight of a trip would be a visit to this monster:
Here’s a picture of us in authentic 1970s garb to give you a sense of scale – I’m quite glad that this old picture is grainy, so you can’t see my haircut!
The Major Oak is the most famous tree in Sherwood and possibly one of the most famous in the UK. When I was a child you could clamber all over it and my sister and I used to hide right inside its belly. These are much more recent photos I took when visiting early this year:
Of course it’s now surrounded by a fence and is extensively supported by large props. It brings to mind a zoo animal, somewhat constrained but conserved and protected at least.
How could you fail to be impressed by this ancient tree?
I don't really know where my inspiration comes from, I just hope it never stops.
Unusually, this is the only tree I photographed, though not really a tree at all.
The weirdest flowers I've ever encountered - an orchid with a vine-like habit but I didn't note the name.
I can't take credit for these photos - most are my daughter's! I think she has a good eye already.
I've come to realise that creativity for me is a never ending process of filling myself up to the point where it overflows - if I don't keep filling up with new stuff, the flow slows to a trickle and eventually stops. So I've learned to make time to seek out new things to inspire me, to devote energy into research as well as production.
A bit like this, though now I've drawn it I think perhaps there should be a hole in the side of the bucket for the 'work' to flow from, rather than it coming over the top...
The Creative Bucket (patent pending Tansy Lee Moir)
So I've been out and about, minus walking boots this time, a bit more smartly dressed for visiting galleries and all that.
I met up with a friend and first of all we visited the Peploe exhibition at Edinburgh's Dean Gallery, properly known as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two. It was quite busy and I was not able to take any pictures of course, so you'll have to take my word for it that the paintings were masterful, striking, elegant and colourful. I loved the way the show documented the development of his work - moving through the rooms I was struck by how different the phases of his paintings were.
Across the road at the Gallery of Modern Art One, we saw 'From death to death and other small tales', a show of contemporary works which were in turns mysterious, thought provoking, puzzling, hilarious, irritating and wonderful - Ernesto Neto's work falls into the last category, with his sculpture evoking the internal structures of the body, 'It happens when the body is anatomy of time', 2000. I sneaked a photo of this one though it sadly fails to capture the fragrance of all those spices at the base of each tube-like form.
The following beautiful sunny day, eager for more, I headed over to the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh with the family.
I love the John Hope building, with its confident, innovative, sustainable design and its welcoming, comfortable spaces. It's big and busy but it makes me feel at home straight away - I'm not sure what the architectural term would be but it seems to guide you round all its interesting nooks and crannies without ever making you feel like you're lost.
'Jalan Jati (Teak Road)' is showing in the main exhibition space downstairs and I loved the idea behind this project. It's an exploration of the journey of a single piece of furniture - a teak bed found in Singapore, and traces it back to where the original tree may have grown. This is a wonderful partnership between scientists and artists with some gorgeous large scale collages made from direct prints from the bed itself.
Upstairs, through the restaurant (where we may or may not have indulged in afternoon tea) is 'Leafing through Scotland', described as "A celebration of the Year of Natural Scotland with a selection of books and objects from publishers across the country." In the display cases my daughters spotted both books and whisky which we have in our house too!
Finally, though it made no sense at all on the hottest day of the year so far, we toured the famous glasshouses... I don't need to say anything more other than see these for yourself (with a few photos in my next post to persuade you) - fantastic!
Inspiration comes from many sources and in many forms - these three have influenced the way I see and think about art and how we relate to our environment...
‘Beechcombings’ by Richard Mabey
This is a beautifully written exploration of the author’s and society’s relationship to trees, the beech in particular. Every time I read it (I’m on my fifth time) I’m struck by a new idea, a fascinating fact or a thought provoking quote. It covers our relationship to trees through a variety of historical periods, touching on politics, ecology, aesthetics, art and literature, and includes some honest little snippets of self reflection too. There are lots of scribbles in my copy which I’ve developed into ideas and themes in my sketchbook and have filtered into all my work.
Here’s my favourite quote, which I’ve used in my show ‘Damaged woods’:
“which bits of our aesthetic, or emotional, consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch?”
You can find the book here.
‘Cave of forgotten dreams’ directed by Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s hypnotic film about the cave art discovered in Chauvet, France, some of it found to be over 30,000 years old! Yes that’s the right amount of zeros! Mindblowing. The paintings on the cave walls are so vibrant, directly conveying the movement and nature of the individual animals, yet we know virtually nothing about the people who painted them, nor their reasons for doing so. The simplicity and incredible skill of the images are a great reminder to me that I have so much to learn.
Herzog’s film explores the scientists and researchers studying the cave as well as the actual cave paintings themselves. The restrictions imposed on the filming seem to enhance the other-worldliness of the cave and its contents, and his deadpan commentary contrasts wonderfully with the weirdly comical characters he interviews. It’s on DVD, but see it in the cinema if you can – there’s a 3D version which I wasn’t able to view in the little arthouse cinema I went to.
‘Wildwood’ by Roger Deakin
I think of this as a ‘core text’ for the development of my artwork. In the book, Deakin muses on woods and trees in the UK, Australia, Kirgizstan and Poland, recounting his travels and meetings with many others who shared his passion. He had such a rich, intimate relationship to the natural environment and creatures surrounding him, and a beautiful way of putting this across in his writing. It’s deeply poetic, personal, knowledgeable and subversive. There’s also a melancholy to it, perhaps because you read it knowing that he died before it was published. One day I’d like to escape for a while to a wee shepherd’s hut like his (see Caught by the river blog), with some sketchbooks, maybe some whisky and my tatty copy of his last book.
Old contorted oaks at the base of Burbage Edge near Sheffield.
It was a relaxed but very informative first day at the 'Shadows and Ghosts' event, the rain held off for our site visits and the hightlight for me were these amazing oaks, with their mossy confusion of branches. I managed a very swift drawing - I'll be back here with more paper and more time!
I'm on my way south to sunny Sheffield!
Sheffield may not seem like the obvious place to hold a conference about old trees - it's such a lively, youthful feeling city I think, probably because much was destroyed in wartime bombing so the buildings are relatively recent. It's also had a huge investment in its public spaces with some amazing public art, as well as the trams of course.
It's a city I know quite well having grown up next door in Derbyshire and having a sister living there now. And because it's so close to the Peak National Park there is actually very easy access to some really interesting wooded landscapes which I'm hoping to find out more about at the 'Shadows and Ghosts: Lost woods in the landscape' event this weekend, hosted by Sheffield Hallam University.
There's a field trip to two sites on Friday and a busy programme of speakers and discussions all day Saturday so my head will be buzzing with new knowledge and crazy ideas on the train home on Sunday, which will help to feed my work for the coming months.
I'm very excited to be attending a conference in May entitled 'Shadows and ghosts: Lost woods in the landscape'.
Hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, it aims to "to review and develop ideas around ancient trees, ancient woods, wood pasture and the ideas of shadows, ghosts and retired veterans" and I'm hoping it will deepen my knowledge and understanding of the old trees I draw. I'm also really looking forward to meeting some new people who share my interest - perhaps even develop some ideas for new projects over a refreshing Sheffield pint!