I’ve been thinking again about that passage in Revelation 22 that describes a river flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem. The second verse continues, “On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” This is my favorite verse in all of scripture, because it evokes both the mysterious impossibility of a single tree that somehow is growing on both sides of a river, and also the eternal promise of nourishment and healing for all.
This image has been appearing in my art for many years, often as a tree (or half of one) hugging both the right and left edges of each panel as a kind of frame for whatever else I was painting. Sometimes, these trees look like some kind of evergreen or pine, the needles appearing as flickering shadows and glinting highlights. Other times, the leaves are fleshy, each one individually shaped and modeled, with twelve round, ripe, red pieces of fruit hidden among them. In either case, the leaves and branches stretch across the entire visual field, partially obscuring the complex, icon-like images beneath.
This week, I started working in a new way. After a two-year break from the studio, in which all of my creative energy went into writing, my vision has changed. Now, instead of approaching the image like an iconographer, setting creatures and symbols in a timeless, featureless heaven, I want to bring heaven down to earth, like the New Jerusalem descending to be God’s dwelling place among the people. This new idea suggests a more photographic style, in which the mystical creatures that have inhabited my work will peek out from behind trees, leap out of lakes and streams, and flicker at the edge of vision.
As one of my first, tentative steps on this journey of discovery, I have been making some digital sketches. Combining photographs that I took while on silent retreat at Dayspring last year with images copied from some of my earlier paintings, I wanted to see if what I had in mind had any merit before I committed myself to the long and often tedious process of putting paint on panels. Part of me wishes that I could simply be content with these digital explorations, which are fun and easy.
But “fun and easy” is not how I approach making art. Instead, I feel compelled to do this the hard way, carefully copying what I see in the photograph onto a wooden panel, following the contours of each shape and matching each area of local color to the best of my ability. Needless to say, I am somewhat terrified. In all my years as an artist, I have only done one photo-realist work. A large study of the engine of an antique car, it hangs in my basement as a reminder that I actually can do it. But I am woefully out of practice, and the prospect of failure feels very real. I can imagine revelation, but – as I am fond of telling my students – every artwork is a compromise between the golden, shining vision; the possibilities and limitations of my materials and tools; and the skill of my hand and eye. As the Tree of Life takes shape in my studio this time, I expect it to look very different than it has before.