What excited me about the scene of Red Maple and Sumac was the colors. Not just the intensity of the color, but the range. Sumacs display every hue in the rainbow. My neighbor asked me why I put all those colors in the sumac leaves. Is that real? he asked. He had seen sumacs as a kid, but I don’t think he looked closely enough. Maybe the next time he sees them in the fall, he will.
One of the collectors of my art, Dr. Roger Martin, wrote me the following when he first saw a photo of this painting: “The sumac piece — well, that has a rich feel of community and company in it for me. It made me want to go there, shelter under the rich colours, feel the shade of the branches, the warm company of the quiet water. That’s got an unbelievable appeal for me.” I was delighted that he felt the richness of the colors, as I did. But he felt more. For me the existence of the pond was a lucky accident because it enabled me to reflect the colors of the background. For him it became quiet and warm. How wonderful! I did not think of that but it’s surely there in the scene. And his sheltering in the shade of the Maple, what a comforting image. Actually I came upon the scene rather late in the afternoon. The sun had peeked out for only a few minutes for which I was hugely grateful because of the way it lighted up the leaves. But, again, perhaps earlier in the day, when it was hotter, leaning back on the soft grass, yes, I can see it. It’s so exciting for me to see my paintings from different points of view.
Even when I include botanical characteristics of the plants in writing about my painting the botany is simply a means of achieving a greater sympathy for the subject. I’m in good company here. Thoreau saw no incompatibility between his emotional and scientific approach to trees. Richard Higgins wrote an article in American Forests (summer, 2016) about Thoreau’s “visceral connection” to trees. He writes that “Botany gave him [Thoreau] a way to see the invisible energies of trees and new words to describe them”.
Richard, June 18, 2016
Sometimes I paint with my dog on my lap. Of course, I have to be careful not to get paint on him. Wolfie (short for Wolfgang) is a Maltese, so his white fur makes any paint quite noticeable. At one point, while I was painting the Crabapple Blossoms, he had a small streak of bright pink near his tail. (Whoops!)
Last Friday was the South Miami Art Walk opening event. Green Monkey South Miami, the studio where I currently teach yoga—another occupation of mine—hosted the Tiberius Art Studio. Together, my father and I had fifteen paintings on display in the large, gallery-like room. It was invigorating to be able to discuss the art with so many people, old friends and new viewers alike.
Everyone agreed that the texture of our knife paintings was something that had to be experienced in person. It doesn’t come across in the photographs how three dimensional they really are. As I watched people’s reactions, I noticed that some people seemed to connect most with the birds, some with the more traditional landscapes, and others seemed most interested in the unusual close up compositions.
One of the most encouraging conversations I had was with a young woman who expressed that the paintings captured the feeling of being in nature. It was just like being there, she said, and they gave her a sense of peace and well-being. She connected her emotional response to the paintings with the theory of biophilia, popularized by E.O. Wilson and originally coined by Erich Fromm. Briefly, biophilia is “love of life or living systems.” Biophilia explains our attraction to other living things as a product of our evolutionary history. We have evolved to be in nature and not in cubicles within a concrete landscape.
I am very interested in her comment that nature has the power to restore our equanimity. I have noticed this restorative effect myself. I am encouraged by the idea that my paintings might help people reconnect with the value of wild nature for their own well-being, rather than out of obligation to an abstract moral ideal.
In this video I describe my childhood passion for trees that grew into a desire to express these feelings in paint.
Do Landscape Paintings Appeal to Our Survival Instincts?
One of the questions that has always puzzled me is what motivates people to buy paintings or photographs of landscapes and hang them on their walls. Is there something in our evolutionary history that predisposes us to prefer landscape paintings? In this video I reviewed the works of Denis Dutton and Daniel Berlyne who attempt to understand our inherent preferences for certain types of landscape art.
In this video I explain how I choose a subject to paint.
In this video I explain the difference between landscapes and what I call portraits of nature.
Our art celebrates the beauty and complexity of wild nature. We hope our work will encourage the conservation of wild habitats. All of us are aware of the immeasurable value of plants in providing useful products—from food to furniture—but our art celebrates an aspect of nature that owes nothing to the industry of humanity. We don’t paint captive animals or garden plants. We are focused on the species in its natural habitat. Honoring the context that shaped each magnificent species is a kind of empathy. The more we learn about the natural history and ecology of each plant or animal the more connected we feel with it and the more likely we are to conserve it.
Another defining characteristic of our work is attention to details. The details are fascinating. Take the bark of a tree, for example. Trees grow from a layer just under the bark so they outgrow their bark every season. Therefore the bark must crack or shed to make room for the growing trunk. Birches solve this problem by peeling off the bark the way a snake sheds its skin; Sycamores and Jeffrey Pines shed their bark in jigsaw-like pieces; and Oaks develop cracks that deepen and widen as the tree ages. When we are painting trees we pay attention to these differences to help the viewer appreciate the particular tree as if it were a character in a novel. We hope that these details will help you appreciate these lovable characters.
Richard learned quite by accident that this kind of empathy with natural things is close to what the First Nations People call understanding their “spirit”. He learned this as the guest at a wedding where he happened to be seated next to a Micmac Shaman. The Micmacs are a first Nations People originally from an area that is now the Canadian Maritimes. When he found out that Richard painted trees they got into a lively conversation about the native flora. The Shaman told fascinating stories from the mythos of his people. Richard told the Shaman how much he enjoyed his beautiful stories, but honesty obligated Richard to say “I appreciate that your people have had a connection to the trees of this land many thousand times longer than my people have had, but with respect, the tree that I want to paint was here long before even your people arrived”. Richard was concerned that the Shaman might consider this statement insulting, but he looked at Richard with an expression of delight and recognition. He said, “That is exactly the idea of the spirit of the tree that we Micmac understand!”
Being in the presence of something wild can be an awesome experience. Most of us experience this awe when in the presence of large wild animals or dramatic flora like a giant sequoia or red maple in blazing fall color. We like painting such dramatic images, but we take a special pleasure in revealing the majesty of a species that may not be so dramatic, capturing the unremarkable at an ideal moment.
During dinner conversation, Richard was telling a friend about the story behind one of his paintings. The friend found the story very interesting and wondered aloud whether Richard had ever written any of them down. On his suggestion Richard began printing the stories on sheets with the writing tucked around a small picture of each painting. The sheets were enormously popular at the opening of his exhibition. Everyone who bought a painting wanted a copy of the accompanying story. When Kiry joined the Tiberius Studio she followed the tradition of writing a story for each painting.
People have told us that the stories helped them see features of the painting that they had overlooked. We experienced the value of context when we were in Madrid visiting El Prado. We engaged a tour guide for a second tour because we saw so much more in the art when the guide explained the context of the works. He not only explained the social and political context behind the subject of the painting, he also enlightened us about the perspectives and evolving techniques of the artists. We try to do the same with our stories. Each story contains comments on our perspective of the subject, our emotional response to it, a little biology, and often some notes about technique.
The empathy we feel for a species is enhanced by knowledge of its natural history and ecology, that is, the story of each species and its relationships with the rest of the natural world. The story shapes the composition of our paintings. Richard once made a large painting of Black-eyed-Susans with some Ox-eye Daisies in the foreground. The daisies were clearly past their prime, their petals were faded and drooping below swollen seed clusters. He could easily have taken a few weeks off the lives of the daisies to show both ray flowers in their prime, but then he would have failed to tell the story. The story is that these plants stagger their peak flowering times to share the bees and other pollinators. As the daisies begin to fade, the Black-eyed Susans take over. Telling the story is an important part of our art.
There is some truth to the old cliché “to know you is to love you” when it comes to the appreciation of nature. This cliché may seem like a stretch when applied to trees, but that is only because they are less familiar to us than animals. We expect to see tigers in tropical surroundings and zebras in grasslands. We know so much about these animals that an image of the animal out of its natural context would be jarring. Perhaps as we know more about the flora, we will find satisfaction seeing plants in their natural habitat and among their usual companions˜like sun flowers in an open field or violets in the forest.