“This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”
—Richard Powers, The Overstory
The 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, the seventh edition of this showcase, offered a highly diverse assortment of art, from landscapes, digital images and mezzotints to a tower of jumbled chairs. One of the stars of the show, Avy Claire’s For the Trees, was tucked away in the back corner of the first floor space, forming a kind of world apart.
The installation consisted of suspended sheets of translucent polyester film on which are drawn spidery leafless trees. Upon examination, one realized the trees consisted of words written with a rapidograph in a loose cursive script. The impression was that of a grove of arboreal ghosts in and among which visitors moved, sometimes stopping to study—and read—the trunks and spindly branches.
In a statement for the show and in an accompanying video, Claire noted that the piece combined two concepts: obsessive mark-making in response to world news on the radio and a passion for trees as “guardians” and for woods and forests where she has found solace and sanctuary. She had been writing down bits and pieces from news reports as a way to cope and then decided that trees might somehow transform the energy.
Her impulse, Claire wrote recently, was “to give the words to the trees, words that are describing the problems in our world, with the hope that the trees could do some magic, like the way they photosynthesize sunlight into energy, that this would somehow heal, if only me.” Asked where her interest in trees began, she writes: “[f]rom when I was quite young, I had the sense of trees being alive with a spirit. Many of my childhood drawings focused on pictures of plants and trees as characters, and I would draw them in costumes as if in a play. Now as an adult, my feeling is that we are in in debt to the plant kingdom for its essential role.”
For the Trees was first installed at Waterfall Arts in Belfast in 2008. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue for that showing, curator and art writer Suzette McAvoy noted how the piece both embodied time and transcended it. “The trees tell our stories and are shaped by them,” she wrote. “Our interdependence with nature is made clear. This is art that proves ‘what is real.’”
Raised in a New Jersey suburb, Claire first came to Maine in 1971; she moved to the state full-time in the 1980s. For some years she maintained studios in Blue Hill and Long Island City in Queens, New York, but she is now a year-round Mainer. In addition to her art-making, she has designed and implemented garden and landscaping projects for the past 25-plus years. The impact of the latter work on her art has been direct: “As these projects got bigger, and I got used to moving mountains of soil and tons of boulders to reshape landscapes,” she notes, “my studio practice started to be affected. I began realizing larger-scaled ideas that I had tucked away.”
Over the years, Claire has been involved with several cutting-edge outdoor art projects, in Maine and elsewhere. She took part in three iterations of artist Nancy Manter’s LANDESCAPES: Mount Desert Symposium in the Arts (2003, 2004, 2006) and has done residencies at Waterfall Arts and the Pingry School in Short Hills, New Jersey, where she organized The Seed Bank with the new Environmental Studio Art class in 2011.
For The Pruning Project, Claire worked with the Newforest Institute in Brooks, Maine. A section of the institute’s 300-acre woodland is dedicated to engaging people in the art of pruning. The project is long term: children from the local elementary school will be able to re-visit their trees in subsequent years “to continue working and seeing how the space transforms into a kind of sculpture park.”
“When I prune,” Claire has explained, “I am working as an artist to shape the tree and I also have to think as a gardener/naturalist, understanding the timing, the specific needs of the tree, and how the tree will respond to my cuts.” She is in “Tree Time,” connected to the rhythms of nature. “For me, this is an ultimate understanding of stewardship”—and, she might have added, of her art practice.
Since first entering art school—she earned a BFA from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1978—Claire feels that the main concern of her art has been to make visible what she refers to as “the space between things.” When she paints, she says, she feels she is painting “the energy of a physical place where the forces of nature exist in as real a place as the landscape in front of me. This place seems like an in-between space.”
In her painting and drawing, Claire tends to work in series, latching onto a subject or concept and then riffing on it. Her 2004–05 SeaGrass series, for example, consists of acrylic-on-panel paintings, each measuring eight by eight inches, that feature abstract images reminiscent of grasses. The similarly formatted 2011–12 “un-föld” series (föld means earth in Hungarian) owes something to Abstract Expressionism, the individual compositions recalling de Kooning and Kline in their bold non-representation.
Claire’s more recent series, #twistedbrushstrokes, are “pruned” brushstrokes painted in acrylic on YUPO and paper. She started them during a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, Virginia. Frustrated by a “failing painting” and wishing to pare it down to its essence, she cut out the one brushstroke most interesting to her. That accomplished, she could “no longer see the need to have a rectangle hold the brushstroke(s)/mark(s).” She also couldn’t justify “the protocol” of having the brushstroke be two-dimensional. She wanted to “turn off the critic in her head” and play.
And play she did, creating a group of energized three-dimensional brushstrokes. The pieces, some cylindrical and suspended from the ceiling, others affixed to the wall, capture the gesture and dynamic mark-making of the paint strokes. The process relates to Claire’s landscaping experience. “This work, cutting out the negative space around the brushstrokes, feels a lot like pruning to me,” she says.
Claire enlisted her niece, Lauren Elise Hirshfield, to assemble the pieces into a show, held at the Frank Brockman Gallery in Brunswick in July 2018. (Hirshfield is a New York City-based gallerist and co-owner of Paradice Palase, a project space in Brooklyn that supports emerging and under-served artists.) Hirshfield described the work in the show: “They sit carefree on shelves and pedestals, or suspended from the ceiling, weightless yet still wholly ‘object.’ The large cut-out painting in cylinder form glows orange inside and casts a shadow in its wake, almost coming full circle (no pun intended) back into two-dimensionality.”
Last year at the Cynthia Winings Gallery in Blue Hill, Claire showed pieces from another recent series called The World Is a Messy Place. She thinks a lot about “the messy place that is our world, how we as ‘intelligent’ life have not done a very good job designing structures to inhabit.” Here, she refers to all structures, “political, social, economic, as well as physical structures and infrastructures.” She is saddened and bewildered by what she calls the “inconsistencies in the world,” especially as concerns design. “I have an internal need to make beauty where there is none,” she writes, adding, “How do I shape it?”
Claire started The World Is a Messy Place series soon after the last presidential election, when she found herself “on that fine line between chaos and order.” But the series is also a metaphor for the creative process, “that mess on the surface and the desire to make something out of it with paint.” Her work, she notes, has “much to do” with process and materials. Here, she employed blades instead of paintbrushes, using squeegees of various sizes and plastering tools to “push the paint around.”
Asked if she feels it’s more difficult these days to avoid the political in one’s art, Claire replies, “I am someone who believes the poets should be governing the world. Deep down inside, I am an anarchist. I do not see these two sentences as mutually exclusive.”
Recently Claire has taken a break from the studio. “What is going on in the world today has really thrown me,” she writes, “and much of the hope that I get from being in the studio is quite thin.” She is putting more energy into designing landscapes in which she can “create sustainable beauty directly on people’s lands—to show the relativity and connectedness to an audience larger than one.”
Climate change and storm surges are “waking people up, especially landowners,” and this awareness gives Claire a ready audience as she uses sustainable garden solutions to help with shoreland stabilization, drainage issues, blowdowns, etc. “The consequences of our actions are easily illustrated and demonstrated in this arena,” she says, “and I can feel more hope.”
The practice of art, Claire states, has shown her “the relativity of all things and the connectedness of all things.” She understands her “job” as an artist is to make what she sees visible. “I also like it when things are subtle, perhaps even subliminal,” she notes. If, as an artist, she can share some piece of beauty, some way to understand the connectedness of all things, then perhaps she will “pass along that understanding, and perhaps that will lead to a better understanding of the consequences that occur with each action we take.” It’s an ambitious and admirable mission, needed more than ever.
[More information about Claire is available at www.avyclaire.com. She will have a show at the Blue Hill Library in June 2020, with proceeds going to the library (“I find it to be such a valuable asset in the community—I figured it is one way I can give”). She will also be showing at the Cynthia Winings Gallery. This essay is adapted from Edgar Allen Beem’s Maine Art New, which was cancelled last year by the University of Maine Press.]