Statement and Essays
"Speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."
From: The Lorax, by Dr. Seus
Walking in Beauty
"When you look at a tree and perceive its stillness, you become still yourself."
My paintings are an active response to a sense of wonder at being in the world. They do not address any specific art discourse or theory.
Using a simple landscape format provides a surface on which I try to express and/or reflect on my mind-state while contemplating experiences I have had - mostly outdoors.
Since the late 1970s my works have gone through a range of stylistic treatments with a focus on space, distance, atmosphere, light, energy and textures - presented on a two dimensional surface using paint. I compose and paint images that resonate between principle subjects and surrounding spaces.
Sometimes the sensation of momentarily loosing "myself" occurs in open places; a perception where boundaries are only shimmering illusions and a holistic presence is pervasive.
I see trees, plants and bushes as tracing energetic linkages between earth and sky. The tree breathes what we exhale. When we exhale, the tree breathes. So. We have a common destiny with the tree. We are all from the earth.
(Floyd Red Crow)
My landscape paintings are composed from memories of an experience. I use memory as a filtering agent to distill an image for a painting, discarding useless details. Sometimes I do on-site drawings or take photographs (which pile up in my studio); but I do not generally refer to them much while making a painting. When a painting is complete it must reflect an emotional sensation that calls to mind some aspect of my remembered perceptions. It just needs to "feel right".
The Navajo Prayer expresses my gratefulness at being alive in this world.
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
In a gentle way you can change the world.
Why I Paint Trees
In 1984 my partner and I planted 7000 trees on 20 acres we owned in Grey County, Ontario. As a result I began to see trees as an artistic subject that I could really embrace. Helping these trees to grow and protecting them from predation in their first few years allowed me to connect in a visceral way with environmental issues as well as ideas of shelter and nurturing.
Being so involved with trees also changed the way I looked at them. They are excitingly sculptural in their huge variety of shapes, forms and textures. It is not possible to see them as static, rather they respond to both the long term climatic forces and the immediate influences of weather. Trees move in the wind, make sounds, have smells, are smooth or rough; and they can show us how they are experiencing conditions of drought, cold, heat and threats. In many ways trees can express a wide range of human-like concerns and states of being.
Gradually my landscape paintings, which were fairly abstract in the past, shifted emphasis - with tree forms coming to dominate the central theme of most works. Today I continue to explore and refine my painterly methods used to express what I sense about foliage, branches and trunks surrounded by airy spaces.
It is clear that trees have an almost infinite variety of types. I travel fairly often to other regions and spend time looking at trees and shrubs in widely ranging conditions, from deserts to rainy forests. They are all interesting; my visual passion.
While staying in Taos NM at a house surrounded by sage brush I heard coyotes one night outside my window. The next day I decided to try and experience the sage brush from their height. Getting down on all fours I moved through the sage which changed into a forest from that vantage point. It was a valuable insight; change your perspective to learn new things.
Robert marchessault 2013
As a student at Concordia University, Robert Marchessault ignored suggestions from his professors to follow his peers in painting abstraction, instead opting to learn—and contribute to—the "language" of landscape. This explicit disregard for the conventions of the contemporary would be what solidified for Marchessault not only an impressive and prolific 40 year long painting career, but a firm and respected place in the Canadian contemporary art community. For many, Marchessault's paintings recall the pastoral scenes of the landscape genre, and evoke the technical skill of canonized artists like Baroque painter Claude Lorrain and English Romantic John Constable. But what separates Marchessault from this art historical tradition is his deep exploration of the tree and its landscape as archetype rather than as assertions of territory or purely idealized, Romantic space. Indeed, observable over Marchessault's long career is a general turning upwards from land to sky, a re-orientation of perspective to include—and even privilege—empty space.
It is precisely this love for space that for Marchessault becomes a vessel for meditative thought. The artist defends himself against any suggestion that painting trees repetitively signals "a dull, uninventive mind," citing the work of Giorgio Morandi and others "who could find in a simple set of objects all that they needed to sustain them in their work." This tireless exploration of a single subject paradoxically reveals Marchessault's versatility; the tree—stripped of its literal associations and inscribed with its complex symbolic history—becomes a "vehicle" for interpretation, and a space for personal, political, environmental, and imaginative projects. This creative attitude underpins what is perhaps the most striking and poetic aspect of Marchessault's work: the trees we see are imagined, hybrid species, painted from the artist's memory, their surroundings equally constructed in to create each dreamlike composition. Characteristic of his technique to date, Marchessault begins his process by applying layers of paint to a wood panel, only to strategically wipe it off with rags to create and build up texture. Recently, the artist has been experimenting with the smoothness of spray paint and the almost surreal, almost-abstract effects of bright, flat blue skies. His tree figures begin as swift, gestural lines of paint, with branches and foliage growing out of this initial abstraction as organically as nature itself, what Marchessault describes as "the way energy flows up and through a tree." Together, these explorations lend a distinct, contemporary freshness to Marchessault's recent work, and demonstrate the artist's willingness to investigate the limits of his subject matter while maintaining what he describes as the ability of the tree to evoke "universal yet intensely personal" responses in the viewer.
In all their simplicity, Marchessault's paintings inspire complex levels of awareness, both mental and spatial. Ambient Trees is an exhibition of works that fuse representation and imagination to encourage abstract, 'ambient' thinking, to consider the essential relationships between a thing and its space, life and environment, time and geography, mind and body.
Erin Saunders 2015 (Exhibition Catalog, Ambient Trees, 2015, Bau-Xi Galleries, Toronto)
Dr. Jack Brandes, in front of a Marchessault from 1981, part of his collection.
Robert Marchessault and the Landscape
I first saw Bob’s art at the Gadatsy Gallery in Toronto in the early 1980’s. He was exhibiting works in pencil and watercolor on paper dealing with the landscape. The pieces were small and delicate, somewhat abstracted, yet captivating. Each work provided a small window into a particular universe. At one level they were highly accessible depictions of countryside yet they were also places into which the viewer could insert himself or herself and roam. His use of the land, its contours, horizons, skies, trees, rocks and water provided points of entry, inviting exploration, experience and reaction to that particular scene as well as the art of painting itself.
Somewhat later, I had the opportunity to visit Bob’s studio, then a tiny cramped space, and see his work in oil on canvas and on wood panel. The scale was large and the style was bold and exuberant and again, the work brought the viewer in – to feel and relate. His paintings delivered. His image of a particular scene: looking down from a vantage point in Halliburton, looking out through a window, seeing a sand dune, walking in an apple orchard, engaged rather than presented the viewer with an illustration of a vista. As Jed Perl of the New Republic (June 25, 2008) points out, “A painting or a sculpture, whether abstract or representational, must always be a place – a unique locale, a little universe. The particularity of the place draws us in…. we linger, we explore….”
Over the years that I have followed Bob’s work, the landscape, its trees, its skies and presence continue to be the subject of his many paintings. Rather than paint pictures of a specific vista, his works use elements of the landscape to allude to aspects of the land which lead us to experience nature and our place in it. His paintings are good companions; as with good wine, they age well. They continue to welcome and nourish and remain as unique and vigorous as on the day they were first seen.
The landscape always evokes feelings, not only about the scene that we take in, but also about our relatedness to the earth, the world and parts of ourselves. We experience a sense of our being in the particular world of the painting, looking about, sensing, relating. Sunlight streaming onto golden fields, heavy clouds in the sky darkening the earth, a river meandering away from us into the distance evokes thoughts, expectations and memories. We explore the parts of the painting and we meet parts of ourselves. Bob’s paintings invite our visit and reward us with the experience of the world he presents. As R. Kitaj, in the Diasporist Manifestos observes, “Paintings sit there, looking out at the world, which remains separate. I’m for an art into which the painter imports things from the world that he cares about – imports them into the alternate world that is the work of art.”
Dr. Jack Brandes
Bau Xi Gallery, Vancouver
March 3 to 24, 2012
By Janet Nicol
When Robert Marchessault and his partner moved from Toronto to a farm in the countryside in the 1990s, his long-held passion for trees found new direction. This exhibition shows 15 of his new oil paintings on wooden panels, all ethereal renderings of those trees. “These are not photograph-based,” Marchessault emphasizes. “I use memory as a filtering agent. I train myself to look hard at the trees and at what impresses me. Time goes by and I begin to paint the tree from what I can remember. Memory plays a big role but I am not slavish about memory. I study ways the tree lives and grows, how it branches, moves through space in foliage and form. Then I begin big gestural paintings, and memory informs what emerges.” Marchessault’s love of trees was partly inspired by an Ontario government no-cost tree-planting initiative. He and his partner planted 7,000 saplings on their farm in 1984. He now looks out on to 50-foot-high pines. “You take on a nurturing of the land,” Marchessault says of his private forest. “You’re introducing life and protecting it. This feeling of love drives a passion for art.” Marchessault has also become intrigued by representing water as a foil to trees. New paintings of tree-covered islands appeal to him because they seem ‘mysterious.’
Form and Feeling
Statement from the October 2014 Exhibition at Bau-Xi Galleries Vancouver
The title of this exhibition is borrowed from a book by Bertha Fanning Taylor, Form and Feeling in Painting published in 1959 by Pagent Press. The phrase “form and feeling” came to me as I was working on the largest canvas in my show, titled Varada (pg. 24). The words seemed to encapsulate what I have been trying to accomplish for a number of years.
I studied painting in Montreal under two main influences. John Fox and Gerald Roach (both deceased) taught at Concordia University and Dawson College respectively in the 1970s. After formal classes Fox was kind enough to invite me to his Old Montreal loft-studio where small groups of art students would pitch in to pay for a model who would sit for us. During the breaks we would look at his current paintings and those in progress. This was during his most abstract phase where colour and forms (shapes) delivered sensual visual experiences unlike anything I had seen to date. As well, John had a large collection of art history books and art magazines that he would pull out in order to show how his explorations were linked to a long tradition. I remember times when he would place a work in progress on the floor and ask me if a certain shape and line “felt” right. Understanding that I needed to “feel the forms” in order to respond to their emotional weight had a big impact on me.
When I knew Gerald Roach, he had moved away from abstraction and was exploring a kind of neo-classicism which borrowed techniques and imagery from the 16th to 19th centuries. As with Fox, I was able to learn outside of the college studios and spent time drawing and painting with him on trips in Quebec and to his studio in Nova Scotia. One of the key things I learned was how hard it is to paint “solid forms” that appeared to carry weight. He encouraged me to strive and find ways to feel the massiveness of objects and portray them. It took me over a year to achieve the basics of this skill. He hated the unwanted flattening effect produced by copying photos, exclaiming “how can you trust an image gained from just one eye in a sixtieth of a second!”
What Roach helped me to do was to look hard and feel the forms, the weight and mass. He taught me to trust my own eyes and to use drawing as a way to get that understanding down on paper. That was where the passion was.
I’m now older that both those artists were when I knew them. Yet the importance of what I learned seems to reveal itself more with each passing year. My art is about experience and my desire to share that with viewers. Emotions and sensual responses to what I see in trees, water, clouds and landscapes are best expressed with the power of forms.
I work hard to draw convincing fundamental form/shapes set in a composition that allows light and spaces to support all the many elements in a painting. Given that there are infinite compositional possibilities I need to constantly step back from the piece in progress to feel the forms and decide if they are saying what I need. The first hour of painting is critical. Working wet into wet with brushes and rags, I rapidly draw using monotones to build the image. Often the painting is wiped down several times at this stage in order to find my way to the right feeling. I work from memory and am not distracted by photo references. I usually exaggerate the physical shapes to help express my ideas.
Most viewers are not painters and probably do not care much about how a painter works. They encounter a piece long after it has been completed. The viewer’s understanding of its forms is immediate. In my work, the forms resemble trees. I like it when both the abstract qualities plus the meaning of the tree images combine to set off feelings unique to each viewer. In these times, with so much emphasis on eco-consciousness, there is no doubt that my subject connects with the importance of preserving and encouraging a world in balance. I subscribe to these actions and hope that my work supports them in some small way.
Robert Marchessault, 2014
The Lorax Dreams
EXHIBITION TEXT, Bau-Xi Galleries, Toronto
Among the hundreds of cave paintings at the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Serra da Capivara National Park in northeast Brazil, are the oldest human-made representations of trees, made between 15 and 25,000 years ago. Trees are the oldest living entities on Earth. They are transformative in that they seed themselves and appear in unexpected places. Trees flourish in their own ecological time, apart from the human time frame. They make the Earth livable.
Trees have been imagined as multivalent symbols, powerful metaphors and allegorical subjects that inform a variety of distinct cultures and transcending eras. They represent multifaceted symbols that evoke many metaphorical readings. Throughout history, images of trees have come to imply growth, memory, cyclical life and knowledge.
Canada has over 350 million hectares of wooded land, and over half of Canada's land surface makes up 10% of the worlds' forests. In Canada, as elsewhere, the natural landscape and especially trees, have been employed as metaphorical imagery representative of our nation, they form part of powerful constellations of symbols for distinct nations within this nation and they have been used as symbols for nation-building across vast geographical spaces.
With the ever-present and looming realities of climate change, images of the natural landscape, flora and fauna take on new significance. Imagery that previously served mainly aesthetic purposes now evokes new themes. A recent article in The Guardian recounts the sudden death of thousand year-old Baobab trees in Southern African countries. Trees in the Amazon jungle have removed one third less carbon from the atmosphere over the past decade. The Green Belt in Ontario is under constant threat of creeping urban development.
It is not surprising that for Robert Marchessault, trees have been a vibrant source of inspiration and long-lived vitality. Marchessault has enjoyed a long painterly fascination exemplified by his sustained interest in depicting trees in his works. Marchessault's trees have been mistaken for photo-representational portrayals. But the images are fabrications, not based on photographic source material, rather on the sustained practice of observing and drawing. Rendered in the medium of paint, they use light and dark contrast highlighting select details of the trees.
Marchessault prepares the canvas by layering field upon field of colour washes, removing the layers and then reinscribing them, thus building up the background to create a sense of depth. The trees materialize virtually; they appear to be floating mysteriously above a nebulous foreground. From the top down, they have been carefully considered yet, as the eye moves further down the trunk, the nature of the trees' representation loosens. They are no longer anchored in the Earth. There is almost no horizon or vanishing point as the trees themselves serve as the primary focal point. On occasion, the trunks fade into an organic wash of colour, no longer simply tree trunks, but becoming root systems. It is almost as if the paint itself has been directed by gravity instead of by the hand of the painter. The bottom third of these works are more reminiscent of watercolour painting techniques or Modernist color field painting. In Marchessault's case, the combination of these painterly techniques transport the trees he represents away from simply representational and toward realms of the imaginary.
The Lorax (1971), one of Dr. Seuss' most famous books, acts as a parable for environmental stewardship. It was so prescient that in the 1980s a logging town in Northern California attempted to ban the children's book. Its message remains pertinent today. Marchessault's The Lorax Dreams invites us to imagine what a forest spirit, responsible for the well-being of an entire ecosystem, might envision in their dreams.
CARMEN VICTOR, 2018 Toronto
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
Tree of the Week, essay, August 30, 2019
Against a Dark Ground
Rembrandt, Velazquez and other classical artists often used a technique of painting against a dark ground. They did this to achieve dramatic impact and strong chiaroscuro effects. These are methods I occasionally harness to move art viewers emotionally.
I am a painter who thinks trees are important. They are my subject matter, and have been for a long time. Trees are powerful symbolically and physically. We can see ourselves, our character, our passions and efforts in their many forms. Natural and man-made elements can support a tree’s growth or force it to struggle to survive. Trees can be elegant and stately, but often they may grow bent and twisted. They begin as youthful and fresh, then age, break and wither. Artistically they are allegorical. Every one of them is unique, like us.
Where ever I travel, I study the trees. The world contains a bounty of arboreal treasures. Toronto is no exception, the city is blessed with a wealth and variety of trees second to none. The painting of the tree on the left (Kimunu, oil, 32”x 40”) is inspired by Toronto’s Sakura (Cherry Blossom Festival in High Park). I have paired it with a young maple I photographed somewhere in the city’s many parks. The opposing colours, red and green are united in their contrast by the dark ground. Black acts as an anchor. It’s a deep emotional zone that holds the image together. The red and green can be understood as representing the spectrum of our multicultural metropolis.
We live in a world that feels so fragile. The fires of the Amazon are terrifying. As the trees burn, we are diminished. In my art, I try to use trees to reinforce our spirit, bring pleasure, but also fear of loss. The Lorax, in Dr. Suess’s book, says “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongue”. I hope my paintings speak for them too.
Trees Are A Symbol For Life
Interview with Foster/White galleries, June 2020, from a distributed newsletter
F/WG Trees are a symbol of life. Do you translate this in your trees, and is it an important symbol in your work?
RM I consciously decided to focus on trees because they fascinate me. One of their features is as a universal symbol in almost every culture. Ask people from around the globe what a tree means to them and you will discover that it’s pretty important. Most people associate trees with life, growth, shelter, strength, stamina, longevity, ecology and so on. It’s a long list. But the richness of themes affords me with a great many perspectives that I may use.
F/WG You planted thousands of trees on your property in Ontario, and nurtured them to maturity. You’ve talked about how being so involved with caring for and sheltering those trees changed the way you look at all trees, and influenced why they became the central theme in your work. Why is painting trees still so important to you, and what do we still have to learn from them?
RM When my wife and I purchased our first land in 1982 we bought 20 acres of an old farm. There were three empty fields that we decided to plant in trees. The tiny saplings were so fragile and delicate. Drought and animal predation was a problem. For years we protected them from a variety of threats, watering, keeping the choking grasses down, and fighting off the voracious ground hogs who’d chew them down. I think we lost half of them in the first few years. But every spring we’d replant where needed. It was a labor of love, passion, determination, we wanted to see a forest grow. After 14 years things were looking good when a tornado ripped through the property toppling the old growth white pines that had been there for probably 200 years. We were devastated and a job offer at Georgian College in another part of the province decided us on moving. However, the young trees we planted survived the tornado. Now, 37 years later, that property supports a beautiful mature forest of pines. We can learn from trees that we can be bent but not broken.
RM We bought our current land in 1997 and planted new trees again. 22 years later we are surrounded with beautiful mature arboreal splendor. I feel privileged to have lived long enough to make a forest twice. I have learned perseverance.
F/WG In college you eschewed directives to paint abstractly, favoring instead to paint landscapes, and more realistically. In recent years your work has combined elements of abstraction with trees painted concretely and clearly. What role does abstraction play in your work now? And how do you balance your tree forms in abstract spaces?
RM Abstraction, realism, expressionism, and so on, are just formal processes that artists choose. They come in and out of fashion constantly as do colors, textures, subject matter, etc. Artists who I admire don’t really think about contemporary fashions, they choose their approach based on internal needs. Usually these change and evolve over time. So it has been with me over my career. A few years ago after painting trees anchored in the ground, typically in a landscape setting, I decided to re-imagine trees as a strong graphical shape. To emphasize this, I developed abstracted grounds on which to place these shapes. The grounds emphasize the tree and the colors added a flavor to the overall work. Balance is something I viscerally feel my way towards… and sometimes that balance is skewed for emotive reasons.
Could you share with us your process of creating the trees, and how you combine different elements and ideas of trees from memory in each work?
All my tree paintings come from memory. I have honed my recall for trees based on drawing them, photographing them and studying them in detail. I pay great attention to how they grow and respond to various stressors. I see the chi energies that move through from the earth to roots and branches. Using these insights, I paint by inventing the shape and design based on what is moving me at the moment. A good analogy (since I love playing guitar) is how a jazz musician can improvise music on the fly.
I often improvise my trees by combining various species into a single form. While that image is of no specific kind of tree, it presents elements I need to make a visual statement.
F/WG What kind of trees or plants do you like to have close by while painting? Do they impact your work?
RM I’m surrounded by trees that I have planted and enjoyed watching as they grow. I also grow plants and bonsai (sort of) in pots in my house and studio building. These provide me with a positive ambiance that supports my work. One of the potted trees came from an orange seed that my wife and I planted when we were married. It is still living (in a much larger pot) 43 years later. Another symbol, I guess!
F/WG What pastimes do you enjoy that nurture your creativity?
RM I love music. I listen to it a lot, and whenever I can, I attend live performances. I also play guitar and love to improvise. Sometimes I get together with friends who play and we jam. Reading sustains me. Long walks are part of my life too. Travel to other parts of the world are a wonderful way to learn about trees in different environments. Museums and galleries are wonderful. I am a serious gardener.
F/WG As many of us now are getting a bit more time to spend out of doors while staying home, do you have any suggestions on how to best appreciate and observe the world around us? What brings you peace during tumultuous times?
RM Appreciating the world around us can emerge by observing it, being open to what is before you. Dropping judgmental thinking. Just being present in the moment of flow and open to the possible is a simple idea but can be hard. It’s good to find a passion and love it. For many it might be gardening or music or ...
One thing that “brings me peace” is knowing that we are all part of a greater thing. I am in peace when I’m in the flow, just experiencing, not thinking.