The Red Cedar

Chapter Thirty-six        Cedar

The Red Cedar, oil, 1933, 111.0 x 68.5 cm. Location: Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG 5.4.7. © Vancouver Art Gallery

To paint a tree or a totem, she had to look at it long and long, until it resembled no other tree or totem. It was easy with totems, harder with trees. Without a totem pole as a natural center of interest, she had to sort out the chaos of overlapping forms, and select. That density was probably why people thought the forests of the Northwest were unpaintable. She had to shove that aside, get quiet to the bone to let a subject come.

She sat very still, listening to a stream gurgling, the breeze soughing through upper branches, the melodious kloo-klack of ravens, the nyeep-nyeep of nuthatches--all sounds chokingly beautiful. She felt she could hear the cool clean breath of growing things--fern fronds, maple leaves, white trillium petals, tree trunks, each in its rightful place.

Partly lost to her surroundings, she singled out a cedar, wide at the base, narrowing as it grew. If there was any kind of portrait worth doing, it would be the portrait of a tree. But a portrait had to convey character. The channels in this cedar's raw umber trunk all stretched upward, reaching toward light. It was more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that had brought her this far: reaching. Not just the tree, but that idea was her subject. The things in a painting were only bits of visible evidence of a still, small voice whispering a truth.