Tree of Life
Tree of Life, Patrick Davis, Photo by Allan Sprecher
November 1995 - May 1996
Curated by Roger Manley
Why begin this new museum with the Tree of Life? Trees have always been at the center of the human experience. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were so at one with creation that, for them, the forest was a safe and beautiful garden. Then they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and acquired the knowledge of right and wrong, so jealously guarded by God, and of their own eventual death. They became human, in other words. In a real sense, the scriptures describe the Judeo-Christian world's quest to regain that paradise lost which is symbolized by the Tree of Life at its center.
Indeed, throughout nearly all religions, trees signify immortality and act as havens for human inspiration and as abodes of the gods. Sometimes the trees themselves are gods.
Standing with their roots deep in the soil and their branches lifted toward the sky, trees visually link heaven and earth. Their annual rings, recording the passage of time, connect past and present, and their falling leaves speak of the connections between life and death. To early humans, the dark forest was a place of mystery in which the gods chose to hide or reveal themselves, to threaten or to comfort. The single tree on a hill drew lightning, which was surely the gods' tongue of thunder. The appearance of new buds and flowers each spring was reassuring proof of nature's regenerative powers. Even today, trees supply ready and intimate metaphors for the human condition: we search for our roots, we draw our family tree, we branch out in new directions, we plant ourselves firmly to take a stand, and if all else fails we vow to turn over a new leaf.
Trees can delight the senses and even instruct us in graceful living. Perhaps dance began with our ancestors imitations of their swaying, wind-blown motion. Our first music may have been suggested by the pecking sound of birds, or by their songs filtering down from the branches.
Wood is the most universal of worked materials. It is an essential substance that provides shelter and warmth, fuel for cooking, and the basic tools for living and dying - from digging sticks to spear shafts, from cradles to coffins. The paper upon which we have communicated our thoughts, preserved our ideas, and painted our visions is itself a fruit of the tree. Companionship with trees and wood has been with us since the beginning of our species.
As the American Visionary Art Museum opens, we return to those roots with the Tree of Life. The visionary artists presented here incorporate the meanings and implications of trees in their work, and in their private struggles with the meaning of life. The relationship between humanity and trees is hardly a dead issue: we pray that it never will be (knock on wood).
Foremost among the goals of the museum is the aim of expanding the definition of a worthwhile life. Worthwhile does not necessarily mean famous or well-known, and in fact most splendid acts are never noticed, much less rewarded with an Oscar, athletic shoe contract, or spot on the Top Ten List. The exhibition begins, then, with a creative act made by an anonymous artist - in fact, a mental patient who told the staff at his hospital that he would like permission to make a large sculpture. When they agreed to this, he began carving the trunk of a huge tree that had fallen on the hospital grounds. A month later, he had whittled the wood down to this slender, graceful figure: the singular Individual who stands at the heart of this museum's ideals.
Spiraling up through the central stairwell is another sculpture made of hundreds of identical "units" resembling the DNA molecules that form the genetic code. This, the largest sculpture in the exhibition, suggests the smallest components of Life itself.
Together, these two pieces introduce the overall theme of the Tree of Life: a celebration of the life of individuals, which is fragile, particularized, and limited in years, but which has the potential for creative meaning, and of Life itself as an ongoing force, the sum of all its indistinct and dispersed parts.