Robert Marchessault | ARTIST INTERVIEW
In Conversation | Robert Marchessault
Foster/White Gallery: Trees are a symbol of life. Do you translate this in your trees, and is it an important symbol in your work?
Robert Marchessault: 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. 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.
Robert Marchessault, Mojave Verde, oil on panel, 60 x 40 in.
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.
Robert Marchessault, Jack, oil and acrylic on panel, 25.25 x 19.5 in.
F/WG: 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?
RM: 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!
Marchessault with the orange tree planted when he and his wife were married
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.
To learn more about Robert Marchessault and to see available works,
please visit www.fosterwhite.com.