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Art, Philosophy, and the Curly Willow Tree

We spent the weekend cutting down a curly willow tree that had grown too large for the space in our back yard.  As each branch came down I mourned the loss of this tree I loved and often painted, yet realized that the grass needed sunlight, the foundation of our house needed to be free from evasive roots, and the risk of heavy winds eventually toppling the tree into the neighbor’s yard required the removal.  We stacked the curled green branches in a corner of the yard in preparation for the trip to the landfill – and by the following morning the small sparrows and finches that had wintered over in the neighbor’s evergreens had moved into the thicket, thrilled with their new home. 

Now I will have to worry about the wildlife and clearing it away before they start building nests and laying eggs. 

This is life, though, leaving one phase behind, finding new purpose, moving on.  As an artist, I often feel the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations, and my career aspirations compete heavily with realities of life.  In this way I am like the curly willow serving only one purpose, that of shading the yard and providing still life material – instead of seeing the potential beyond one set path.  Understanding this keeps my spirit alive, my zest for following my own artistic aspirations.

I have been reading the book George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy.  Among the ideas that motived Inness this one stood out: “Indeed, Inness would, in image and word, become a vocal advocate for creating original works of art that would, as he put it, not ‘instruct’ or ‘edify’ his viewers but ‘awaken an emotion’ – any kind of emotion – in them.”  Regardless of his sometimes unorthodox painting methods, or his connections to Swedenborgian religious theory regarding color and numbers, Inness was able to communicate the emotional experience of the landscape that has stood the test of time. 

For me, the important message from Inness, and from other notable landscape artists through the centuries, is that the art of landscape does not lie solely in the craftsman’s ability to apply paint, or the draftsman’s ability to render an accurate tree, or the plein air painter’s ability to turn out a pleasing painting under time and weather pressure. 

It lies in more difficult territory.  It is the same elusive ability of the poet to articulate beauty.  It, perhaps, has a deeper connection to philosophy than to the rules of composition or color theory.  As a practicing, growing, struggling artist I work constantly to achieve these goals, moving from the fundamentals like color charts, to studying composition, to thinking about “what do I want to say” – just like you, just like nearly every other artist out there striving to reach their own goals. 

And it seems to me that these days it’s harder to do for artists over the age of fifty, where the current attitude can be just as disheartening as those attitudes from years ago.  Where the “women are not successful because they give up their art in return for nurturing their families” has been replaced by “older artists need to ‘do art’ to keep their brains healthy and functioning.”  Where the well-meaning assumptions from the status quo are that we are victims of our personalities and our biology, that art is either something we easily trade off or pick up to solve some other “more important” problem. 

Does that idea make you mad?

Weather we are Sunday Painters, or avid competitors, whether we seek recognition or prefer humble isolation, creating Art for the artist is of no less importance than music for the musician, or a novel for the writer. 

And that is the real message of the curly willow.

No matter what form it takes, your need to create and to share the magic with others, will shelter you, whether the branches are high, waving in the wind, or low, protecting the nests.