Regarding a Dead Tree
Copyright © 2020 by Fred R. Kline
The piñon (or pinyon) tree that became my green tree sculpture was killed during a bark beetle plague that had swept across New Mexico some years ago and killed millions of pinyon trees. We lost about a hundred trees, many were personal favorites. The green tree had been a beautiful old pine I saw every day walking my dogs and one of thousands in the old growth forest on our ranch.
Sculptor Fred R. Kline with Lulu by unpainted War Memorial Green Tree, ca. 2010 photo Jann A. Kline' 7th Heaven Ranch, Ilfeld NM.
I could see the dead tree was hiding a sculptural quality within the tangle of dead branches and for several years I walked around it and thought about how I might prune it so that a design would emerge. I peeled the dry bark off the tree with my pronged stick as easily as unzipping a jacket, and I made a pile of the tree’s skin. The bark beetles, like vampires, had sucked the life blood out of the tree. A friend noted that the wood of the skinned tree would turn gray and become hard as iron. I wondered if I should paint it and what color and I thought about that for a long time, years in fact.
And so it came to pass that the design of a grotesque five-fingered hand emerged in stages as I cut away the chaos of obscuring branches and as I pruned the dead branches they became symbolic bones along with the symbolic skin of the peeled bark. In 2012 I decided to paint the tree a bright green and I was pleased at the irony of a green dead tree. My wife Jann had died the year before and it was in her honor I chose green because I knew she would have loved the idea of a green dead tree. Nearby I made a mound of the dead branches and dry bark and also painted the mound green. Suddenly and intuitively I knew I was making a war memorial and I was excited at the idea.
Before long in another section of land I recognized a group of four dead trees that were sculpturally and thematically related to the green war memorial and I began to sculpt them into grotesque hands and make another mound of bones and skin. I did not paint the second series green because I liked the natural gray tones of the dead wood at a related separate site. The continuation of my war memorial theme had now evolved into a connected series of landscape sculpture on two sites approximately ten acres apart.
In this process of making art if an answer to a long standing artistic problem appears and if you are intensely focused, open-minded and lucky, an epiphany may happen, as it did for me with the war memorial. A bolt of lightning zaps you in the head when you find the answer, or as Picasso noted, “when the answer finds you.”
War Memorial: Green Tree, symbolic hand, Mound in background. 7th Heaven Ranch, Ilfeld, NM
In 2013 I sent photographs of the two “War Memorial” sites to ART IN AMERICA magazine to once again enter the national competition for public outdoor sculpture. I had won a place in that competition in 1994 with my commissioned “Temple of the Hills” in Santa Fe, a Stonehenge I had made from large and unusable sandstone monoliths, flotsam and jetsam blasted from a quarry. It is still standing on an arroyo peninsula ten minutes from the Plaza, at the entrance to Santa Fe Hills neighborhood, and it is formally dedicated to Jann in a bronze plaque which came before her death. The ART IN AMERICA judges now informed me they had chosen my ‘War Memorial” to be included in their annual virtual exhibition in the magazine, but alas, they said it had to be disqualified since it was on my private land and self-financed and not commissioned for a public space as the rules stated. True enough. Some consolation and even a triumph came with their rejection and I rationalized that I had fairly won and even fairly lost.
War Memorial: Mound of symbolic bones and skin from the Green Tree, 7th Heaven Ranch, Ilfeld NM
The great green tree has since rotted at the base and fallen over and been moved to a nearby open area where it lies on its side and where it became a giant green fantasy creature crawling on the land. As it turned out the fantasy creature was, amazingly and by chance, the incarnation of a doodle I had drawn a hundred times in the past. The unpainted trees at the other site still stand I think. I have moved away.
Some years later I wrote a poem about the green tree:
I Carved A Dead Tree And Painted It Green
I carved a dead tree And painted it green. I made of it a branching hand Of five contorted fingers Reaching out of my land, A little prairie place Among the thousand trees around me In the greening continuum Of life and grief. Voices came from the tree They spoke of the murdered and martyred Of wars Of nature and love Voices asking forever Why did I have to die? As with the tree we die Still in the dream Still in the stream of last sleep Die in the green promise Of fresh awakening.
President Kennedy once suggested in regard to nuclear war (how can we forget this threat?)—the Sword of Damocles hangs over our head, inferring something very bad could happen to us at any time. Yet, in spite of the threat of nuclear war and the current coronavirus plague, we must push onward to another day which will always be different and with luck will be a better day.
The second War Memorial site at 7th Heaven Ranch, Ilfeld, NM. Landscape sculptures by Fred R. Kline. Five unpainted features at this site, including mound.