The Forest for the Tree

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

If you’ve ever seen news footage of a hurricane or tropical storm, you’ve likely seen the ferocity of the wind through the image of trees wildly wavering and bending, but not yielding. They reflect the power of the forces acting upon them while also demonstrating their resistance and resilience in the face of adverse conditions. They are well known metaphors for strength and determination. So when gallerist Berta Walker was trying to come up with something she could do for the Ukrainian people after Russia invaded this past February, she began thinking about trees and how many artists she represents who use trees in their works.

Woods and Cardinal , 2007( Oil on linen, 72 by 60″) by Donald Beal


“I just said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to do something.’ I mean, I really believe in putting the positive [out there], and what better way than through art, which is so spiritual,” says Walker. The resulting show Trees of Courage opens at Berta Walker Gallery this Friday, May 20, with an opening reception to follow on Saturday, May 21, 3 – 5 p.m. It features a large selection of works by gallery artists as well as guest artists, connected by this thread of trees, but with vastly different approaches. Proceeds from the sales will go to helping the Ukrainian people.

Don Beal, a gallery artist who is known for his paintings done in Beech Forest, was a natural choice. For many years, Beal has consistently returned to the forest, finding inspiration, challenge, and mystery in the woods.

“It’s so complex and tangled in there, that I would never come to the end of it. I would never figure it out. It was really sort of, in a way, unknowable… I’ve painted it for decades and I don’t think I know anything more about it than I did when I started,” Beal says, thinking about how he started painting there. He adds, “I think when people think of trees, you know, the trunks are brown, and they sort of go up and if you took a broccoli and stood it on its end, you’ve got a tree stalk with a lot of sort of green, leafy stuff. And if you go into the woods, it’s very different. It’s kind of wild. So that’s, in a nutshell, why I keep going back, because there’s always something there that I can lose myself in.”


Daffodils and Forsythia, 2022 (acrylic on panel,16 x 12”) by Laura Shabott

Other works feature trees in more abstract ways, such as Sky Power’s Singing Trees in the Breeze, where slender, bending tree trunks appear against a lush yellow background, abstractly honoring their fluidity and warmth. There are three-dimensional works, as well, including some by the master of assemblage, the late Varujan Boghosian, whose playful constructions offer an entirely different use of trees. And in a companion exhibition called Voices of the Forest, photographer John Romualdi presents photographs of parts of trees that seem to be sculpted into other things, but are actually in a sense found objects, photographed ready-mades as Marcel Duchamp might call them, such as his The Sage, which finds an animal’s stoic face in a tree fragment.

And then there are those that feature trees only peripherally in their compositions, such as Laura Shabott’s Daffodils and Forsythia and the powerful image that graces our cover this week, guest artist Teresa Baksa’s Mountain of Restraint, which not only reflects war in the Ukraine through this tree metaphor, but also through the larger context in which it was created. Baksa says she was painting from a live model in 2021 and also had been paying close attention to the George Floyd murder trial. What began as an exploration of the model’s musculature became increasingly “aggressive,” she says, as the image was being created.

“Things started to change, as they always do,” she says. “The actual model, he has a very sensitive-looking face, and the face that sort of appeared as I was working on it, became very determined and stoic and maybe sort of defiant… And it became a piece, in my mind, about subjugation. And how there’s a mountain of restraint that just faces groups of people, especially a minority group against a majority group. The majority group has the power. And the trees are there just to provide some more upward movement and maybe add to the sense of strength, but also the trees are bare, in their state of dormancy. They’re not growing. And so it sort of ties in with the idea of subjugation, denying people their self-determination, you know, or their opportunities to grow.”


Overview, 2008 (construction, 16.25 x 17.25”) by Varujan Boghosian

Baksa says this connects to the subjugation of the Ukrainian people, as well. For Walker, it isn’t a specific connection to Ukraine that inspired these shows, but rather a common thread of humanity and supporting each other. “This is a courageous front of people… It’s just something that’s touched every one of us in the world and we have to learn from this,” she says. “So it’s not a connection to Ukraine [alone]. It’s a heart to heart connection.”

Trees of Courage and Voices of the Forest are both on view at Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford St., Provincetown, May 21 – June 18. There is an opening reception on Saturday, May 21, 3 – 5 p.m. For more information call 508.487.6411 or visit bertawalkergallery.com.