It is my largest oil painting to date, the largest canvas I can drag down six flights of stairs and transport on the subway. The painting, to me, is about growth and death at the same time.
I’ve had Mag, my recently departed 92-year-old friend in mind while painting this sugar maple. I started it during the stretch when she was clearly dying, yet it seemed to never come. It was stressful—I needed to jolt myself out of it and assert my own agency precisely because I felt so helpless. A 6 foot square painting was the perfect challenge.
The challenge didn’t quite originate from me. Janet Fanning, a painter in my neighborhood, had passed away. Her family kindly asked if I was interested in some of her old stretcher bars. I said yes. Many of the bars were 4 to 6 feet in length, fashioned out of sturdy 30 year-old-wood. Janet had stopped painting on rectilinear frames over 30 years ago. I’m no expert, but it was clear to me that the quality was something from a bygone era. I’m grateful to Janet and her family for the challenge and opportunity to reawaken these canvas stretchers.
(You can’t get stretcher bars that feel like this anymore. The necessary increase in speed of wood production during the past 30 years has negatively impacted the quality of mass produced canvas stretcher bars. Hyper capitalism relentlessly seems to transform objects into cheap replicas of themselves.)
The subject matter of the painting is a sugar maple in Prospect Park. It is illuminated from behind, colored red during the height of autumn.
Mag gave me a book called “Freddy the Leaf” after my mother died. It is about a leaf, transitions through life, and death. I thought about that while painting this tree.
I also thought about the connection between the growth of a human and the growth of a tree…as well the way I orient myself to both. I can only attempt to grasp what that a 92 year old perspective feels like—it is about as inaccessible to me as the perspective of a tree. I’m left wondering what lessons there are in my relationship with Mag that can inform how I relate to a tree. A human and a tree cannot change their roots. They are formed by the conditions they are born into.
Mag was a Catholic Nun. I cannot help but also think of the burning bush from the bible.
I’d be lying if I said I had any of this in mind at the outset. But that is key I think. I thought of this while painting. It is generated through the process itself. The painting continues to generate its meaning now that it is out in the world.
I hope you get the chance to see it. Let me know what you think.
This painting is a tree at human scale. You are forced to confront it directly: growing, dying, and beautiful.