Tag Archives: Burr Oak

Arts

Beyond Pretty Pictures

In Trees, an exhibition at Christ Church Cathedral featuring photographs by Tom Kimmerer and Guy Mendes, a simple conceit illuminates pressing issues of contemporary culture. Visitors to the cathedral are presented with an abundance of images showcasing the grandeur of Kentucky’s terrain and landscapes. On one hand, this exhibition is an opportunity to bask in the beauty of local plains, hillsides, and mountains. On the other, Kimmerer and Mendes draw upon their critical aptitude to reinforce environmental concerns around the globe, as well as photography’s temporal nature.

Guy Mendes, “Monk’s Pond”, 2015, pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

Guided by light and color, the compositions Kimmerer and Mendes generate are dynamic and arresting. In Monks’ Pond (2015), Mendes offers a viewpoint from a small body of water surrounded by towering limbs and foliage that recede into the scene. The ground the photographer must be standing on, however, creeps into the frame from the top edge, instilling a dream-like sense of place as the tall grass protrudes like a canopy. Utilizing the water’s reflection and expert cropping, Mendes fabricates a disillusioning image. Even photographs with more conventional presentation styles in the exhibit—such as one by Kimmerer of a silhouetted oak against a rural backdrop in Bur Oak Named Eilean—are striking given their emphasis on dramatic lighting and vivid hues.

Tom Kimmerer, Bur Oak Named Eilean, undated, print on satin lustre paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Several of Kimmerer’s photographs are documentary, in that they take stock of the seasons and time, monitoring the cyclical tendencies of various plant life, observing trees and their surroundings. Boy in Snow with Trees, for example, records a wintry trek across a relatively barren expanse. The trees here are witness to all that is around them:  the boy and his journey, the harsh weather, as well as their own process of death and rebirth. Similar to the trees, viewers are likewise able to focus and scrutinize the field of snow.

Tom Kimmerer, Boy in Snow with Tree, undated, print on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

These types of photographs are visually quite stunning, as their settings seem almost too grand or painterly to be real. Kimmerer’s most conceptual output, though, are those that take a position of environmentalism.

A mammoth oak looms over a blue highway sign containing local food and gas options in Bur Oak at McDonald’s. Extruding from behind the tree, a pair of bright yellow arches beckon to hungry travelers. Kimmerer places his audience at an interstate exit, denoted by automobiles, a street light, and the advertising placard. On the sign are logos and trademarks of corporations that, to varying degrees, increase carbon emissions and damage our atmosphere.

Tom Kimmerer, Bur Oak at McDonald’s, undated, print on satin lustre paper. Courtesy of the artist.

The artist may be juxtaposing the scale of the tree against the comparatively microscopic business icons to emphasize the importance of keeping the planet clean. Even if this is not his explicit objective, the conceptual weight of the pairing holds.

This reading of Kimmerer’s photographs is linked to the idea that, with the acceleration of climate change, many of Earth’s landscapes, wildlife, and waterways are assuredly doomed. In a way, photography possesses the ability to prevent destruction from happening. Photographs freeze time, as it were, and present a version of the world that is specific to an exact moment, regardless of what may happen to erode its contents in the future. Theorist Roland Barthes recognized this feature of photography during the mid-twentieth century, going so far as to connect photographing to death, even when done as an act of preservation. By the end of his influential Camera Lucida (1980), he describes how the camera, in an attempt to keep something the way it is, initiates a phenomenon in which the resulting photograph indicates eventual death. Barthes states that, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

For a composition that places oil industry emblems side-by-side with the physical natural world, Kimmerer’s Bur Oak at McDonald’s would stand as an ominous, if not inevitable, foreshadowing for the tree.

Guy Mendes, “Buzzards’ Roost”‘, 1980, pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

Within Trees, there are other works that also demonstrate photography’s relationship to death as Barthes describes. Mendes’ Buzzards’ Roost (1980) has served as a kind of insignia for the exhibition—the photograph is featured heavily on promotional materials and is by far the largest work. The framed print hones in on a tree looking over the Kentucky River and small canyon in Woodford County. Light beams through the tree’s leaves and stems so that their crisp shadows fall on the trunk, mirroring the direction and movement of the objects from which they are cast. The shadows and light combined with the immensity of the view make for a rather compelling image. According to Mendes, however, erosion and invasive species caused the tree to die, and such a scene can no longer be admired.

So, too, does Buzzards’ Roost fall under the guidelines laid out by Barthes. Mendes likely did not think that the tree would be entirely gone in less than fifty years, but by photographing it he especially designated it to ultimately die. Yet a photograph has that quality of recording things in a permanent state, only for its contents to continue to develop and grow outside of it. This anecdote makes one contemplate if or when other trees and plants in the exhibition will be eliminated from the areas viewers find them in.

The photographs in Trees populate the lobby area, main hallways, and multipurpose space of Christ Church Cathedral. Indeed, they beautify the cathedral in a way many other objects could not, though their social and environmental implications run much deeper than simply nice images to walk by. In addition to functioning as a testament to the splendor of our world, these works call each onlooker to think, act, and inspire on the planet’s behalf, before elements of nature are gone for good.

“Trees – Photographs by Guy Mendes and Tom Kimmerer” runs through October 27th at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington.

original works

Eyes to See

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

 Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

As a young man, I had the good fortune and insight to spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking and backpacking.  I traveled to Alaska and, on one memorable night, sat on a cliffside on Kodiak Island, watching a literal midnight sun disappear beneath the horizon, bathing sea, air, land in a glowing wash.  This was followed, a twilit dusky hour later, by an equally glorious sunrise, the sun that far north traveling not in an arc but in a barely truncated circle about the sky. 

I hiked the Olympic National Rain Forest for a sodden sublime week, sitting on a valley rim, alone in the vastness save for a deer, licking the sweat from my rain jacket I had hung to dry on a branch.  I watched in wonder as a white stag, whose forebears had been imported from Sherwood Forest, emerged from the fog of a Point Reyes morning, him being more interested in lording over the herd of females and fawns who materialized, with a shuffle, out of the whiteness. 

I sang to the glories of the grandeur unfolding as I hiked up the switchbacked cliff face of Yosemite Valley, each turn bringing me higher and deeper into the vast beauty of that hallowed land. 

I guided a raft of friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.  We started in a tributary barely wide and deep enough to permit our craft, finishing, after many nights and rapids, in a wide, flat, slow flowing river which could accommodate a cruise liner.  The world was grand and big and I wanted to see it, to taste it, to bite off huge dramatic chunks.

I am not now that young man.  A friend’s t-shirt loudly proclaims my current state: “The older I get, the better I was.”  My hikes are now a morning walk, my vistas the downtown buildings I spy from my perch atop the coach’s tower in my neighborhood park.  Guiding rivers is now staring in wonder at the intricacies of the creek that flows through the next door neighborhood.  And yet, when I stop long enough to see, the grandeur which inhabits these spaces reveals itself.

I watched in amazement as the remains of a spring rain flowed down the creek, simultaneously carving a channel and creating a delta, as the carrying capacity of the swift water diminished with slowing flow.  In a fractal view of the world, I was watching the Mississippi River flow past New Orleans. 

On a neighborhood walk, I spied in astonishment a Cooper’s Hawk diving treacherously at a chipmunk, narrowly missing.  Or equally amazing, a Red Tailed Hawk lumbering skyward, hauling with him a squirrel who must have equaled the bird’s own weight, forced onto a tree limb perch by my insistent approach.  With the additions of a video crew and David Attenborough’s narration, this was life writ large, worthy of National Geographic. 

The other evening I went for a walk, to be greeted by a Rothko sunset: a flat, snow-leadened wall of cloud sat heavy on the sun, squashing an orange smear onto the horizon. 

Another night, I watched as clouds like a sheet of dryer lint dragged in front of a gibbous moon, fat and white, fixed and solid like a peg in the heavens.  That celestial display no less grand than the gauzy curtains of Northern Lights I was entranced by in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. 

I watched a Bradford Pear tree, whose flowers bested 3 snowfalls and a hard frost to sweetly declare this spring’s imminence, at last give way to the greening of the branch.  The fortitude of our trees to persevere in the face of Spring’s grudging warming is as grand as the Redwoods’ or Joshua Trees’.  Caterpillars of snow crawling on the delicate limbs of Eastern White Pines, crashing down in a secondary snowfall as the sun-warmed branches released their burdens, are as wondrous as the calving of icebergs, the process being the same. 

I feel deeply, especially in spring, the glories of the world around. The volunteer Pin Oak in my backyard, 20 years ago a twig, now is rivaling the size of the 100-year-old Burr Oak of my neighbor’s.  The flocks of warblers travel like gaily colored acrobats on their way north, stopping to pick bug and bud from trees seemingly timed for their arrival. 

My legs are hampered by age and responsibility, my hunger for adventure diminished with time, but the wonders of the world surround us even in our backyards if we have eyes to see, an open spirit and the willingness to “waste” time on the slow and the minute.