Through the touring exhibition Family Tree, four artists from Maine–sisters elin o’Hara, Madeleine, Sarah, and Susanne Slavick—explore trees in historical and current socio-political landscapes.
In a 1940 poem,1 Bertolt Brecht asked:
What kind of times are they, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
In a 1995 poem,2 Adrienne Rich answered:
. . . so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
In its beauty and force, “nature” is often regarded as benign and apolitical. Trees are not expected to assume editorial stances or embody ideologies. Whether bombed or irradiated, contained or marginalized, in underground union or standing in persistence, trees, and their representations, can offer solace and space for the necessities of talking, listening, and learning.
As curators, painters, photographers, and writers, the four sisters portray trees in and outside of human care and conflict. Genealogical roots and botanical roots intertwine. Their exhibition Family Tree offers both critical commentary and sensual delight in visualizing the tree as refuge and livelihood, consumed and consuming, under assault and triumphant, as the historical record, and a harbinger of things to come.
elin o’Hara Slavick
Elin’s work is from the series After Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima, some of which can be found in her monograph After Hiroshima. In her essay in the book, she writes: “The first memory I have of Hiroshima is standing in Monument Square on Hiroshima Day, 6 August, sometime in the 70s, in my hometown of Portland, Maine. My father spoke. My mother spoke. I tried to speak. I had chosen a firsthand account of the atomic bombing, written by a woman who survived it as a little girl. I could barely read it, choking on her memories of melting skin, maggots in the brain, losing her mother, her father, the disappearance of the world as she knew it.”5 During eight trips to Japan, Slavick made cyanotypes of A-bombed artifacts from the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum; bark, leaves, and flowers collected from trees and areas that survived; and of irradiated matter from Fukushima, along with countless analog and digital photographs that include Nagasaki. The cyanotypes conjure the shadows left by humans and things as a result of the blinding light and heat of the atomic bombs and the waves of the tsunami and radiation in Fukushima. Exposure is central to her project–both photographic exposures and exposure to radiation. Like humans, trees stand as witnesses, victims, and survivors. Slavick also works in the darkroom with related, archival, and symbolic materials, chemicals, x-ray film exposed to the lingering radiation in A-bombed artifacts, and rubbings of A-bombed surfaces, including some of the sixty trees that survived the A-bomb in Hiroshima.
Madeleine grew up in the “Pine Tree State,” where there was an open field behind the home (since developed) and a small forest across the street (largely gone to another development). These were the playgrounds of her youth. Fast forward four decades to her New Zealand home, with a timber factory at the beginning of the road, a dairy farm next door (serviced by the world’s largest exporter of dairy products), and a forest park at the end. Her body of work for Family Tree reflects these dichotomies, depicting the glory of the tree yet its marginalization.
This body of work speaks of Family, Tree, Whakapapa.6
Of the way I see, in juxtapositions and relationships.
A necessary connectedness.
A tree is lonely without a forest.
A person is lonely without a community.
I have called myself a tree.
To stand, endure, accord with any season, storm.
To be full of grace, resilience, wisdom.
Tree, tree, stand inside me.
Yet, often, nature and the tree is marginalized, contained, lessened.
We control, tame, fall, profit.
Trees become products, ornaments, bystanders.
Trees also stay trees
Even in parking lots.
draw me a winter tree, the infinite delicate 為我畫一棵冬天的樹, 畫無限的柔美
silhouettes of black rivers and visible fingers 黑色河流與清晰手指的剪影
make a large winter head full of thought 巨大的, 冬天的頭顱,裝滿思想 7
This work was compiled in difficult times–
the climate crisis, the hate crisis,
the massive struggle in Hong Kong,
Yes, I still want to call myself a tree.
加油 | we shall overcome | kia kaha.
“People aren’t the apex species they think they are. Other creatures–bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful–call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.”
—Richard Powers, The Overstory8
As the climate crisis deepens and we face mass extinction, possibly to the point of no return, I grieve for our natural world. Climate change jeopardizes our future with more extreme weather patterns, climate refugees, and the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems. The human species has not only caused massive ecological destruction, but we have separated ourselves from nature and have lost our connection with it. The failure to see this wider context lies behind most of our man-made environmental catastrophes. We often fail to understand, value, or even notice the wondrous, vast, slow, interconnected, primordial natural world alongside ours.
Trees above ground are critical for human survival in producing oxygen. In my Elegy to the Underground series, I am particularly drawn to what happens below ground in the recent discoveries about latticed fungi or mycorrhizal networks. Trees are not simply individual entities but part of a much larger, complex system that engages in social behaviors to communicate and respond as an organism through a vast network of roots. Through sharing resources and working together in complex and infinite pathways, alliances, and kinship networks, trees reach enormousness and increase their chances of survival and ours as well. New knowledge of the hidden life of trees suggests new metaphors for our survival and how we should act to protect our home and our species. The watercolors and paintings of Elegy to the Underground are a tribute or memorial to trees whose heartbreaking loss I fear and mourn.
Susanne’s work pursues empathic unsettlement, combining images of incomprehensible destruction and the possibility of recovery, however elusive. Trees stand amidst the wreckage of war in two works from her R&R(&R) (2008) series. Nests are suspended precariously among their irradiated leaves or bare limbs. Birds wait for eggs to hatch and for leaves to become green again, to miraculously defy the bloated consumption of resources that war demands and the toxic wasteland it leaves behind.
In a more recent series from 2020, woven Tree of Life carpet designs from diverse cultures are painted over images of environmental devastation, from forest fires in Yellowstone National Park and New South Wales to logging in Nepal and Canada. Deforestation has no borders, whether inflicted by logging, pollution, or rising temperatures. However, the specimens in the Tree of Life series do not lie down; instead, these trees stand up in persistence, refusing to be felled, burnt, or exterminated by toxic conditions.
The creative impulse motivating the painting or planting of trees must proliferate radically across all sectors. The will to survive crosses all boundaries and belief systems; it has no ideology. But the will must partner with concrete action. Climate change demands a concerted and universal political will and the wisdom, energy, and passion for enacting it. We are not the only species depending on it.
The four sisters present nearly 100 paintings, photographs, and poems in Family Tree, and they also let trees speak for themselves, introducing living specimens into the gallery space when conditions allow. One tree on display, the totara, is “emblematic of the mana9 of the forest.” Another is the ake ake, which in te reo Māori means “a very long time.”10 How do we remember this “very long time”? Joy Harjo’s 1983 poem11 tells us.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
The artists grew up in Portland, with formative experiences in Maine, including connections to the former Portland School of Art, where elin took summer classes at age six and again at twenty, Sarah received a full high school scholarship, and Susanne learned ceramics. Madeleine joined art classes as a child at summer playgrounds and later at the Maine Photographic Workshops; she has also been involved in literary circles. In high school, Sarah was a teacher’s assistant at Longfellow Elementary School through Future Teachers of America; after college, she ran a summer art school at the family home on Ludlow Street. All attended Deering High School, where they took art classes with Gary Beckwith and Antoinette Jackman on the top-floor studios that felt like old-time artists’ garrets.
While their parents, Ursula and William Slavick, both retired educators, have lived in Portland since 1972, the sisters are now dispersed: elin in Irvine, California; Madeleine in Aotearoa, New Zealand; Sarah in Boston, Massachusetts; and Susanne in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The artists are active internationally, with projects across six continents and in their home state of Maine, spanning from the Maine Coast Artists Invitational in Rockport and the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, to solo shows at the Governor’s Mansion, University of Maine, Orono and Portland-Gorham, and ICA at MECA. Other group shows include those at Davidson and Daughters, Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Robert Clements Gallery, Susan Maasch Fine Arts, and Van Ward Gallery. Maine anthologies and periodicals have published Madeleine’s and elin’s poetry, and MAJ: UMVA Quarterly has featured work by elin (Mapping the Incomprehensible, 2015) and Susanne (Axes of Access, 2021).
“A THING OF WONDER”
Family Tree premiered in New Zealand in 2020. It debuts in the U.S. at the Dowd Gallery, State University of New York, Cortland, in October 2022 and travels to the Erie Art Museum in Pennsylvania in 2023.
Family Tree was selected as one of eight top exhibitions in 2020 by the College Art Association’s Committee on Women in the Arts.3 Kimberly Lamm writes:
This exhibition . . . focuses on the related but distinct ways they engage with the arboreal imagination. Tangled into their photographs, paintings, life histories, and political commitments, the trees in their artwork are intricate lines, bold shapes, diffuse traces, and stylized patterns. Defying the ease with which the genealogical and botanical connect in the figure of the family tree, the Slavick sisters make it a thing of wonder: rooted in the ground and multiplying in our imaginations, family trees are botany and biology written with longing, hope, history, and loss.
In “The Vegetal World,”4 her essay for the exhibition catalog, Katherine Guinness asks:
How many worlds participate in these relations? What are these relations? Of trees and family? Of kin and kindling? Genes and genealogy? Which parts of you are water and which parts of you are fire? And what does it mean that soon, without intervention, the world will both drown and burn? (That it already is?)
. . . What is the family tree made of? Roots? No, branches. Or is it both? Or is it neither? A family tree is a human tree; it is our imposed human-time onto a temporality and lived experience that isn’t ours, so it won’t work. How literal or metaphorical should we be in all this?
. . . What is a tree? What is a family? Much like the second, the first has no true definition; it’s what you make of it . . . “A tree is defined by who you are.” Trees also define who we are.
For more on each artist: elin o’Hara Slavick, Madeleine Slavick, Sarah Slavick, and Susanne Slavick. Four ten-minute presentations by the artists are available for viewing here.
- Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), “To Those Born Later,” Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913–1956, ed. and trans. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Methuen, 1987).
- Adrienne Rich (1929–2012), “What Kinds of Times Are These,” Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).
- Kimberly Lamm, CAA News Today April 2021.
- Katherine Guinness, “The Vegetal World,” Family Tree Whakapapa (Masterton: Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, 2020).
- elin o’Hara Slavick, After Hiroshima (Daylight Books, 2013).
- Whakapapa, a central concept in Māori culture, places humans in the wider natural world. See Te Ara–The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
- Madeleine Slavick, Delicate access / 微妙之途, Chinese trans. Luo Hui (Hong Kong: Sixth Finger Press, 2004).
- Richard Powers, The Overstory (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2013).
- Mana, an extraordinary power, essence, or presence. See Te Aka Māori Dictionary.
- Gareth Winter, Family Trees Celebrated, Wairarapa Times-Age 11 February 2021.
- Joy Harjo, “Remember,” She Had Some Horses (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1983).
Image at top: elin o’Hara slavick, A-Bombed Weeping Willow Tree, Hiroshima, solarized silver gelatin print, 16 x 20 in., 2019.
You must log in to post a comment.