Artists and poets take on nature's role in human progress, and destruction, in When the Bough Breaks | Visual Art | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Artists and poets take on nature's role in human progress, and destruction, in When the Bough Breaks

click to enlarge Ellen Harvey's "New Forest," on display at 937 Gallery for When the Bough Breaks
Ellen Harvey's "New Forest," on display at 937 Gallery for When the Bough Breaks
A gigantic forest stands out from across the room, painted in deep blues and grays on a canvas created from 20 wooden panels. Tree branches are highlighted by streaks of light coming in from holes in the rafters. Wait, rafters? Upon closer inspection, one of the branches is actually a desk light; wildlife below, hiding computer monitors and keyboards with dangling cords mimicking tails; one of the tree trunks, a concrete pillar; trees growing out from behind cubicle walls, long ago abandoned by humans.

Ellen Harvey’s “New Forest,” on display at 937 Gallery's exhibit When the Bough Breaks through Sun., Dec. 8, is a post-apocalyptic scene that conjures both sadness and triumph. Like the other works of art in the exhibit, the piece uses the subject of nature as commentary on the world in which trees live, grow, die, and sometimes — like in Harvey's piece  — thrive; in spite of, or maybe because of, the decisions humans are making in their stead.

Curator Susanne Slavick, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, drew inspiration for the exhibit by a question posed, and answered, by two poets, centuries apart.

A question in a 1940 poem by Bertolt Brecht asked:

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

And was answered in a 1995 poem by Adrienne Rich:

….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.

The exhibit takes on those questions: Is it trivial to talk about trees when there are so many more important, and often horrific, things surrounding us? (Brecht’s lines were first written during the Nazi invasion of Germany.) Or, are we causing more harm — to both the trees and ourselves — by ignoring nature and not taking into consideration their sacrifices and the damage we’re doing by passing them by?
click to enlarge Two panels from Sarah Slavick's "Elegy to the Underground"
Two panels from Sarah Slavick's "Elegy to the Underground"
More poets continue the discussion throughout the exhibit, with poems and excerpts from longer pieces on display beside the works of art, including text from Terrance Hayes, Linda Pastan, Richard Powers, and more.

In “Elegy to the Underground,” a striking eight-panel piece by Sarah Slavick, tree roots jump off the canvas in vibrant, electric colors and patterns. Standing from afar, the piece is hypnotizing as a collection; when one approaches closer, the fine details of each individual painting come alive. The text beside Slavick's watercolor and ink artwork, an excerpt from The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, helps explain why:

“In healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground, and be wrong in our imagining, given as the bulk of the tree, the roots, are reaching through the earth below, there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused.”

New questions arise with each artwork and poem. How can someone ignore a tree once they knows trees have the ability to help others beneath the surface?

Later in the piece, Ross goes on to say, “Joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me.”
click to enlarge Patricia Bellan-Gillen's "Phantom Limbs"
Patricia Bellan-Gillen's "Phantom Limbs"
While there is some joy to be found in the exhibit, I found myself weighed down by an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I was haunted by a beautiful colored pencil and acrylic piece by Patricia Bellan-Gillen, showing birds buzzing around a floating tree stump. Saddened by fires covering the canvas of a piece by Clayton Merrell. And there are more artists than I have room to describe: ones by Denise Burge, Zoe Charlton, Alex Lukas, Lavar Munroe, and curator Susanne Slavick.

When you view the paintings, you think of the trees you have known, the paper you have wasted, the forests that are disappearing.

In “New Forest,” it’s almost as if the trees have finally won and taken revenge, which is perhaps why I keep returning to the piece. And the scenario, as depicted in Harvey's painting, is not so far fetched.

For years, a tree grew inside the old Don Allen car showroom on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield, after the business closed. Passersby could see the Tree of Heaven (a fast growing species) from street windows, growing up from the floor where cars once stood. A friend called attention to it by posting photograph on Facebook, making it "Pittsburgh famous," in a way. Then, just last year, the space rebranded as The Junction, the old lot replaced by a 28,000 square foot new construction multi-tenant development. A Dunkin' and Baskin Robbins will soon open in the spot nearby.

A tree, once again, the victim of humans.

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