Beginning again with a beech

a twisted beech tree in springEver since I found this strange tree in Aberdeenshire last summer, I’ve been longing to get back to Aden Country Park to spend more time documenting it.

It’s striking twists and contortions are vegetatively mysterious, visually exciting and emotionally disturbing – a perfect combination to captivate this tree artist.

a red chalk drawing of a beech tree

When I heard that last winter’s Storm Arwen had devastated the park’s forestry, I felt a sense of panic that I’d missed my chance. It was clearly a very old tree with the usual signs of decay – had it been toppled by the wind or broken by the successive storms? It was with great relief that I learned from local Landscape Officer Calum Davidson that it had survived where thousands hadn’t, so I made a plan for a drawing trip this spring.

Back to the beginning in art making

 

tansy lee moir at the easel drawing

Why was I so desperate to travel 3 hours north just for one tree? It does seem a bit impulsive but this singular organism has lodged itself in my imagination and I have a strong feeling that I need to make art about it. That means going back to the beginning of my process, connecting with the tree through drawing, asking it questions, tracing its surfaces and listening to its stories.

red chalk drawings of a twisted tree

I’m just back from a perfect few days with this tree, with some first impressions, sketches, photos and videos (and a song thrush as accompaniment). Calum gave me a warm welcome to the park with a coffee and a wide ranging discussion about our cultural and historical connections with trees in the landscape. He also told me this one was locally known as the Witch’s tree and thought to be a site of hangings. We agreed that the tree was unlikely to be old enough to have been mature at the time of the Scottish witch hunts, but the link was a grim reminder of the hundreds of such trees across the country which were used as a means of execution.

The unmistakable strangeness of this tree will stay with me and I can already feel new ideas bubbling just under the surface of consciousness. See (and listen) for yourself…

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Discovering Derbyshire oaks

drawing of an old oak tree
‘Chatsworth 007’ conté and sanguine on paper

Heading south

Following six months hard graft in the studio preparing for my exhibition, it felt like the best reward to spend a week in my homeland, discovering some new trees.

So, I packed my drawing kit and headed for Derbyshire, excited to be feeding my imagination once again, turning the creative cycle back to the beginning of the process.

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Meeting the Chatsworth oaks

I grew up in Matlock and as a child used to visit the Chatsworth estate often with my grandparents. I have warm memories of lolling about the grounds with a picnic, paddling in the river and getting towed reluctantly through the big house. I had no inkling at the time that one day I’d be back with a drawing board to study the trees there.

Tansy drawing in Chatsworth park

The whole estate is vast, but close to the house are the remains of a centuries old deer park, the slopes cloaked in old oaks and still stocked with red and fallow deer. This was the area I focused on exploring for the week and I went there every day to draw and photograph these stunning trees. I also made detailed location notes and learned my way around that area of the park, tracking my walks and plotting photos using the Outdoor Active app.

I made quite a few of my ‘Woodland’ drawings, though they should more accurately be called ‘Wood Pasture’ drawings in this instance, since the trees are open grown in pasture covered ground, rather than a closed canopy wood. They have specific characteristics as a result and support an extremely high number of other organisms.

a conte drawing of an oak tree
Conté and sanguine on paper

What really struck me was the sheer scale of some of these trees – perhaps a more benign climate than that of Scotland has led them to grow so big, perhaps they are extremely old, it’s hard to tell.

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One of the largest oaks, with Dr Moir for scale

I’ve come home with a rich resource of new material to inspire future work. It might take a few months to percolate through my subconscious but it’s definitely fired up my imagination again  – I’m creatively refreshed.

old oak tree in Chatsworth park

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Ancient trees with wet feet

This December I’ve been away tree-hunting – I was so ready for a road trip!

These journeys are like mini residencies for me – they are intense periods of research, exploration and new developments. They’re an essential part of my process, connecting me back to the old trees and their stories, eventually stimulating whole bodies of work.

An open wood pasture in ScotlandDrawing on location in Langholm

My original plan was to stay in Aberdeenshire as there are some great tree drawing locations I wanted to return to there. Sadly the whole region’s woodlands were devastated by Storm Arwen and my accommodation and drawing locations were closed to the public. It will take decades to recover from and I really feel for the tree people there.

an easel in a courtyard patioI found a last minute place to stay near Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway, a great cottage with a courtyard I could use as a studio space.

According to the Ancient Tree Inventory the area had some potential new sites to investigate with the kind of ancient trees which inspire my work. This is a fantastic resource and citizen science project – you can find out about trees in your area and how to add your own finds here. It’s of immense value for protecting our special trees.

Finding Aldery Sike

I’d identified some sites to explore, one being just down the road. A small burn was marked on the map as Aldery Sike, so that’s become my name for the location.

I found a large collection of ancient alders there which appear to be a remnant of ancient wood pasture, now surrounded by heavily sheep-grazed land and grouse moors. These trees are a living link with a past way of life and show evidence of extensive coppicing and pollarding. Wonderfully grotesque forms result from this traditional kind of management and the sheer exuberant inventiveness of the trees was captivating to draw.

a sketch of an ancient tree

They grow on a steep hillside which was streaming with water – I had no idea a bog could be quite so sloping! Alder loves wet ground, so they seemed very happy there. It was a magical thing to find such old trees with streams of water flowing around and through them – I had a feeling of reverence and wonder listening to it trickle past as I drew them.

artist sketching a tree

a sketch of a treeNow I know what special trees live there I’m planning to go back to Aldery Sike next autumn for a more focused drawing trip. Next time I’ll be taking a more extensive drawing kit (only had my sketchbook that day) and hopefully some more waterproof boots.

ancient alder with broken branch

Here’s a little video to give you a flavour of this special place

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Tansy Lee Moir (@tansyleemoir)

 

If you’ve enjoyed reading about my tree drawing locations you can find more of them here.

See some of the drawings from my other ‘tree meetings’ in my Woodland gallery.

 

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Drum Castle

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This year I will be exhibiting at the magnificent Drum Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property just west of Aberdeen. I will be sharing the impressive exhibition space (formerly Jacobean era bedrooms) with printmaker Margaret Pitt, who makes woodcuts.

The estate includes the Old Wood of Drum, an ancient woodland containing many old and interesting oaks. I had the opportuntiy to explore the woodlands on two visits last year and will be going back for a drawing trip next week.

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The exhibition opens with a private view on Saturday 4th April and runs all through the Castle’s open season until 31st October.

I will also be doing some workshops and an artist’s talk – more details to come.

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Dead Wood and New Leaves

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Fellow artist Anne Gilchrist and I worked together for the first time during the Grown Together exhibition at St Margaret’s House, though we have long shared a fascination with Dalkeith Old Oaks and have both made work there for many years.

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The site sits within Dalkeith Country Park in Midlothian and is bounded by the North and South Esk rivers. The oakwood is grazed by cattle and managed as park woodland by Buccleuch Estates.

During the spring of 2018 we walked, talked and drew our way around the oaks, discovering shared favourites and introducing each other to their unique perspectives. At that time, the contrast between the copious dead and decaying wood and the vibrant green of the emerging new leaves was striking – two points on the complex cycle of woodland life.

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We decided to collaborate on a collection of ‘things’ to present at the European Wood Pastures: Past, Present & Future conference, 5-7 September 2018 Sheffield, run by UKEconet which I worked with on ‘Tree Stories’.

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Along with original artworks we’ll be presenting this new book, which brings together a selection of our art, photographs and writing made in response to the oakwood. Though we produce quite different work, we share a great deal in the way our art has developed as a kind of conversation with the trees. In the process of making this book and on our walks through the woodland, Anne has taught me to look down as well as gaze up, to notice the small and fleeting wonders of the habitat as well as the monumental aged oaks.

The book is available to preview and order here »

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http://www.blurb.co.uk/b/8907403

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Beginning the Howden residency

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I see my residency at Howden Park Centre as a fantastic opportunity for me to take stock of where my work is now and explore some new possibilities for the future.  Looking at the work on the walls gives me a more complete perspective than when it’s dotted around the studio – I can regard it as a body of work rather than as a series of individual pieces. I’m hoping that this will spark a period of experimentation, but I have to trust my subconscious on this as I have no idea right now where it will take me.

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Collaboration is a more certain way to stimulate new ideas so I’m delighted that writer and photographer Steve Smart has agreed to work with me over the next few months.  I did a fair bit of preparation for the residency earlier this year, principally getting to know Calderwood and learning my way around its variety of landscapes, so it was great to share some of my finds with him on a visit last week and fascinating to see the wood from his perspective. We were also really lucky to have a clear, crisp and frosty day for the visit with gorgeous light.

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He will be writing some poems in response to the locations, trees and themes in my work, which he’ll present at the closing event of the Dialogue with trees exhibition. In the meantime, feast your eyes and your ears on his images and poems on his blog

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Hills and horse

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It was a perfect sunny winter’s day today, just wonderful for going out and getting to know the landscape around Beecraigs a little better.

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First stop was Cairnpapple Hill, so steeped in significance since prehistoric times – not surprising since it has such a fantastic view from all angles, to the Pentlands, the Ochils, across the water to Fife and further out to Berwick Law, the Perthshire and Lomond mountains and even Arran on the best days.

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I’d spotted a row of beeches on satellite photos on the northern boundary of the hill, so went to investigate, finding a sheltered little valley with some small, hardy oaks along with the boundary beeches.

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After a good walk round Cairnpapple I headed towards Witch Craig Wood and the Korean War Memorial, where I’ve been told I’d find an unusual bit of graffiti. After a little hunting I found not one but two carved horses on trees by side of the road.

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One looks like a knight of some sort with a sword, perhaps some reference to the Hospitallers of Torphichen? The other is clearly a Clydesdale horse, standing proudly in the carving by B.R. in ’78. I wonder what their stories are…

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Hidden Beecraigs trees

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For an artist looking for characterful old trees this doesn’t look very promising does it? Clearfelled plantation is in itself a dramatic kind of landscape, but not what I’m hunting for. Gladly we have wonders of the internet like National Library of Scotland’s online historical maps and satellite imaging (I’ve recently discovered that Bing maps are a far better tool than Google) so I had an idea that there might be living remnants of the previous landscape somewhere here at Beecraigs Country Park.

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Surrounded by the plantation trees and densely shaded, I found a few old beeches just clinging on along old boundary ditches.

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They show up on satellite images as bright green shapes against the dark uniformity of the conifers and checking the shape’s location against old maps confirms that they are on a pre-existing boundary.

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I tested out my new water soluble graphite sticks while drawing in the rain/sleet – well it is February!

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A second visit on a much sunnier day revealed a wonderful line of wiggly beeches along a south facing bank.

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This cluster was a real surprise – mountain bikers clearly use this extensively as it’s all lumps and bumps, being a former quarry area.

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So I found my characters after all, which means I not only have the satisfaction of a successful forage, but so many new trees to get to know through my drawing – expect to meet some of them at Howden Park Centre later this year…

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Tree hunting in West Lothian

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Having had a illness last year which incapacitated me for about 6 months (which I’m working up to blogging about sometime), I’m so happy to be able to get back to the woods this winter. So I started the year by making some plans to explore new locations through a series of mini-residencies – a sort of self-directed intense period of study, learning about the history of the landscape, making links with locally knowledgeable people and making as many on site drawings as I can.

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Since I have an exhibition at the Howden Park Centre in Livingston scheduled for the end of the year, it seemed natural to start in West Lothian. While the recent storms have been blowing outside, I’ve been indoors poring over old maps and current satellite images, looking for clues to more ancient landscapes and some likely places to look for old trees. I thought I knew West Lothian pretty well, having worked there on and off for the last 20 years, but Calder Wood is an exciting new discovery for me.

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It’s a plateau of ancient woodland bounded by the Murieston Water and the Linhouse Water, which both join the river Almond at Almondell. The river banks are steep and the trees mostly hide the surrounding housing, making it feel much more remote than it actually is.

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These are a few photos of the wonderful trees I found – impressive old beeches, gnarly sycamore, elderly birches, hazel coppice, twisty decaying sweet chestnut.

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I’m starting to learn my way around the woodland now, working out how all the little tracks fit together, where the clusters of old trees are and which are the best candidates for more prolonged sketching.

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Maps are marvellous for getting the structure of a new place into my head, but now I realise I need to start creating my own mental maps – these are the first of many days in Calder Wood…

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