Saturday, March 16, 2002

Trees Are The Best Sculpture


Trees are the best sculpture. Trees have presence, a stance, a body that is dynamic and full and, at the same time, porous and engrossing. Trees occupy space, command space, define space.

Trees are undeniably tactile and material, living and breathing, perfectly sited in their environment, perfectly responding to their environment. As one walks around a tree the view is constantly changing, offering something new to see, another angle to consider, another way to see that the form of the tree is complex. This reminds the viewer that the environment in which the tree is seen is also complex, and a multi-leveled system of roots, light, water, earth, and animal life.

Trees are a tangle of forms for the eyes and mind to unravel, a visual, cellular, vital, thriving puzzle to try to hold in memory. This is never quite a successful venture, and so, by definition, trees are continually changing sculpture, continually offering something new: a form alive in the world, alive in their site, alive to the eyes, alive to the mind.

Most trees are neutral in color– grays, browns, and varieties of green. To name these colors simply is something that we do to hold the colors in our mind, but the names can’t adequately hold the real color in our minds. The variety of grays, browns, and greens in real life is more varied, and so can only be verified with one’s eyes. The act of looking at trees is always to look again anew.


Hills are the best scultpure. Hills seem predictable: they rise, and then they fall. In the mind, hills are round, smooth, and rolling, either brown or green. Think of how a seven or eight year old draws hills, a series of arcs one after another. Even many adults draw hills like this, but perhaps with the additional sophisticated element of overlapping arcs.

But hills don’t stand alone. Hills are rarely separate and distinct. They meander and bend, fold and merge, one into another. They have multiple sides, and ridges, gullies, and peaks. The form of each may seem distinct, with it’s own shape, volume, and area, but each is also part of a larger form.

The viewer can only assess this by looking and, like most good sculpture, by moving around it. In the case of hills, to get close enough, this means walking, getting close. One must move around the hill to discover the hill’s form, its shapes, colors, lines, and textures. By walking the hill one sees how it is distinct from the hills that roll from and into and merge with the individual hill.

Hills involve at least two kinds of viewing. First, most likely, one looks at the hill, views it from a distance. And then, second, one takes in the views from the hill. Like scultpure, one sees it, and then one sees from it a world different from before. The hill is both a sculpture to look at and also a form that provides the viewer with a position from which to look.


Sky is the best sculpture. Sky is relief sculpture, with a flat background that contains figures projecting forward. Sky is an environment, an area, a container, a gallery, a situation.

The sky hosts clouds, forms that have volume and color. Cloud forms give the sky definition by creating a sense of scale, of height and distance. This sense of scale is created by the contrast of flat and round, infinite and finite, and this fluctuating tension defines distance, space, and depth.

Sky blue is the background, the ground, the foundation and the room. Clouds are the figures. They pose, provide the action, are the center of attention, the objects. Because of this dynamic, which is the relationship between the open background, sky, and the figures it holds, clouds, the blue is the background, and clouds are the subject.


Yesterday afternoon I drove out to sparsely populated West Sonoma to stay for four days in a small house on a ridge that in another couple of miles descends into the Pacific Ocean. From the road I can look south about thirty miles to see Mt. Tam. I can follow from Mt. Tam west along the Inverness Mountains on the south side of Tomales Bay, and see the actual land’s end opposite Bodega Bay.

From the road higher up the ridge I can look just about northwest and see, I think, around Jenner, where the Russian River comes out to the Pacific. The pale silvery ocean then stretches out west beyond to meet the horizon in a perfect straight line where dense gray cloudy air seals and mutes further vision.

I am alone here. Mostly what I hear is the wind in the trees. At night I walk out to look at the sky. A ring of trees forms a black wall around me, and I look up at the fearsome night sky to see an unbearably dazzling star-filled theater. It is almost too overwhelming to look at, my eye skittering from star to star, from star to planet. The dome of black-blue filled with pulsating, brilliant yellow-white points above me is incomprehensible, too vivid for me to restfully look at, too stimulating.

Today I walked back about a mile or so up the road to a preserve of old growth redwoods. Walking among these mammoths I am shut up, made small and insignificant. This is a good thing for me. I feel comfort in my smallness, as if all my failings are exactly what I should be accepting, as if finally there really is nothing at all wrong with me.

One old ancestor must be twelve feet in diameter, and I can’t see the top. This mother tree bears the scar of a powerful lightning strike, the base seared open to form a natural teepee. One can walk inside the tree and look up at least thirty feet into her innards. The interior of the tree is charred in that irregular checkerboard way that wood burns, and growing extensively and evenly on this burned surface is a moist, rich, deep green moss. The gridded charcoal with a mossy green growth is like the surface of an alligator’s, amazingly unexpected and beautiful. Trees are the best sculpture.