Thursday, January 19, 2012

In the Absence of Trees

It must have started when I was living on 24th and Third in Manhattan in my studio — an 800-sq-ft room on the eighth floor with three side-by-side windows that looked out onto the brick wall of a neighboring building.  My sister had come into the city to visit and we were headed around the corner to thrift shop at some of our favorite places.  First up, the 23rd Street indoor flea market between Third and Lexington — a dark and cavernous space with lots of individual vendors with tables or booths, selling absolutely whatever.  My sister and I would skip over the sports and collectibles (“Precious Moments”), give a passing glance to kid stuff (I wasn’t yet married or a mother), and focus only on the art glass, pottery, jewelry, and art  the serious stuff for us. 

You never know what you’ll find but on this Saturday I found a 24” x 15” vertical engraving of a grove of trees edging a wide and winding forested lane.  Dark, sophisticated, green-on-green, and so compelling you felt you were there, in among those trees.  The unframed etching was marked $ 2.  It was signed and dated “Henri Meunier 1917” and then under that re-signed with “1977.”   I dug into my purse, glad to pay that paltry sum for something so exquisite, but my sister interjected, “There’s a huge water stain on the top corner,” and before I could find my cash, the price dropped to one dollar. Ten days later, after spending another $ 77 for framing, I had my first trees. 
Henri Meunier...if you look closely you can see a bit of the water stain in the upper left corner.

Then came a small square watercolor by Marie Stobbe in a grayish-olive mat and a wooden gray-washed frame  two spindly trees framing the scene, left and right; straight ahead in the middle, a bluish cloudy sky, as if you were looking through to the edge of a lake; simple and lovely.  Decades later, when I finally decided to have it rematted to try to brighten it up, upon opening the frame my framer Holly and I uncovered a hidden inch of the scene beneath the mat with yet another tree!  We both agreed to reveal the “lost” tree and after a ping-pong conversation with no consensus, I stubbornly decided on a mat in much the same drab color as I found it.

The third to join the group was a red Chinese silk, embroidered with a single silver intricate tree branch studded with a few two-tone green leaves and some small amber blossoms.  I framed the silk in a black wooden frame to set-off the richness of the red.

Next in my collection, came a large panoramic lithograph, dated 1890.  A sepia-toned scene of trees along a dirt road leading to a farmhouse, signed E.C. Rost.  I think I bought it in Ohio but if I did, I’m not sure how I ever got it back to New York.  When  I had it re-matted and reframed, I kept the glass with tiny bubble imperfections throughout because it was original. Six dollars, twelve dollars, each never very expensive, often spending tens times the purchase price on the framing, but all these trees coming to live with me in my tiny studio apartment.

My first gallery purchase was a splurge.  My friend’s husband, had taken me to the Associated American Artists gallery, on the upper floors of a building on West 57th Street — very posh, very wonderful, and to me, very pricey.  I headed for the low-end bins of $35 prints and found a lithograph of a winter night in New England. “Fair and Colder” by Ellison Hoover (1888-1955).   An enormous, snow-laden pine, massive in its weight and presence (so large three-fourths of the tree is not in frame) dwarfs a man and woman, arm-in-arm, trudging through the snow alongside tire tracks.  The town and a church steeple are far in the distance. I didn’t buy it because I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money.  But after three years of fixating on it, missing it, wondering about it,  I took myself back to that gallery and happily found it was still there but had to shell out $105 to bring it home. Now framed in a high-gloss, cranberry-red wooden frame, over and over I stare at “Fair and Colder” trying to get inside the lives of the couple in that scene. Where were they going? Were they headed to a dance?  Were they married?  Were they lost?

After that, I don’t remember the order of acquisitions in my tree menagerie. In a socialist bookstore in Baltimore with my then-boyfriend, now husband, we found a  black enamel-painted rectangle of wood from Russia.  Carved out of the black, in flowing lines revealing the image in the light clean wood below, was the moon shining through a forest of trees  and in the foreground, a bear and her cubs in the clearing.  We paid the $17.50 purchase price,  named her “Mama Bearski,” and cradled her home.

From the basement of a Ukrainian church, from the back of a junk shop, from the shelves of the Salvation Army, many more paintings, etchings, lithographs have entered my home and thirty years later, forty-five images of trees adorn our living room walls.  What importance did these “trees” hold for me?  Why was I so drawn to their images? I stare and stare and stare at them and am always adding, shifting, regrouping, and re-admiring the beauty they bring.  I was obsessed with my trees and I couldn’t think why. 

One day, in therapy, when asked what I did for “play,” a long ago memory of happiness surfaced for me: maybe third or fourth grade, Marilyn and I riding on bikes to the reservoir, lying under the pine trees, staring up through the branches, watching the needles sway in the wind for hours.  We would talk, talk, talk — about our problems, our families, our dreams.  It was one of the few places in my childhood that always felt free.  Free from worry, free from fear, free from the war zone that was home.  Here I was all these years later, buying up all these trees, bringing them in and giving them places of prominence in my life, so I could have that place of being free again.

A silkscreened page ($2) from a calendar by Ann (?) Goselin. Don't they remind you of the trees in the Wizard of Oz?
Tiny oil painting by Norman Kaplonov,
found at a Ukrainian church sale, 50 cents;
framing about $65

Maybe the best for last: the most magnificent birches painted by my friend since 8th grade, Susan, a wonderful artist and an even better friend. 

1 comment:

  1. I love the art, and the stories that go with the art.