at the root of the matter
JILL LEAR'S TREES ARE A TESTAMENT TO LIFE
words by SABINA DANA PLASSE & RYAN WATERFIELD
"Trees are survivors through the ages." And with that, Jill Lear had us hooked. Leave it to an artist to shake up the way we see things. Trees as protagonists, witnesses, and survivors. OK, we'll bite.
Sun Valley-based artist Lear doesn't just shake up the way we perceive and encounter trees. She imagines and investigates the tree; she collects lore about trees to better understand the role a particular tree has played in the life of a particular community. Her work is grounded in place, and fittingly, the titles to many of her paintings and drawings are the longitude and latitude degrees where her subjects are rooted. Why trees? "Because," she says, "trees are a vehicle to explore structure and order in the face of chaos. There's always a balance with trees no matter how off-kilter they may look-that balance is because they are in and of nature."
While Lear has traveled the world documenting and painting trees, her most recent project took her to Texas. On a 1,300-mile trip from Dallas through the heart of Texas, Lear visited 27 trees, photographed them, and is now working on a collection of paintings based on those trees. It all started with a seed of an idea-trees in Texas-and then that idea took root, nourished by the fact that certain trees in Texas are nearly state treasures. There is extensive research and documentation on many significant trees and there is a wealth of lore to explore. And what is lore but a way for us to better understand who we are and where we came from? Take the Matrimonial Tree outside of San Saba, Texas, for instance. "Long before the Spanish invaded this rich San Saba River bottom-land," reads a website dedicated to the historic trees of Texas, "Indian braves and shy maidens met and were united in wedlock," beneath the Texas oak. And on the day Lear visited the tree? "We arrived to find several people waiting for a young couple who had arranged to be married there that afternoon. The tradition continues." And so you see, for Lear, trees are not only witnesses to events, but also an integral part of the stories of many and therefore the collective history of a place.
Fittingly, it wasn't just research that led Lear to many of the trees, it was social media-Twitter, in fact-today's version of an interactive bulletin board, or dare we say it, message trees. Lear discovered Twitter on this trip and says she couldn't believe the response including one from a head gardener of an old estate in England who was interested in her projects, which will, of course now, include historic trees of England. "When I put up the work 'historic,' it resonated for a lot of people out there," she said. "I was just so surprised by how many people responded."
Connecting to people who have an interest in historic trees has given Lear a whole new perspective. So many people met her description of her journey in Texas with, "They have trees in Texas?" Let's ignore for the the absolute absence of understanding of the vastness and variety of the Texas landscape and just consider the fact that most people take trees for granted. The connections that Lear made through social media and on her trip reaffirms her drive to find and document as many historic trees as possible. But she cautions, "It's not just documenting," she says. "It's also capturing a complete life span of these trees. I'm concerned with the history, the stories, the mapping, the longitude and latitude, and anchoring those trees that have been watching all this happen."
With her paintings, Lear says, "I want to evoke the history of that place. These old trees in Texas have stood witness to so much history. Over the ages they have grown as big and complex as the history they have witnessed." But her paintings are not complex and they aren't heavy like trees (and like much of the history). Instead, often there is more white space in the body of the tree and splashes of color outside the frame of the tree. Often, the colors in the trees reflect the colors in the world outside the tree. Or is it the other way around? It seems to us an interesting move that asks the viewer to wonder: does history influence the tree or does the tree influence the events happening around it? Think back to that Matrimonial Tree, something about that space, the shade the tree provides, the natural harbor that it is, inspires people to merge their own histories and futures with someone else. And the tree is there to witness it.