Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Please Don't Paint Me

The dead, but still stately, cottonwood tree in the image above is located in Leavenworth Landing Park, along the banks of the Missouri River in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. The snag is slated to be painted blue as part of a global project related to promoting awareness of mental health issues. While this is a noble cause, the side effects of landscape art installations like this should give us pause.

The Blue Tree Project has its roots in the tragic story of Australian Jayden Whyte, whose suicide at age twenty-nine gripped headlines in 2018. During the eulogy at Whyte’s funeral, his best friend related the story of how Jayden had pranked his father by painting one of the trees on the family farm blue. That became the inspiration to paint trees elsewhere as a reminder to check on the mental wellbeing of loved ones, and foster a greater awareness of issues surrounding mental health.

There are now numerous painted trees, and other objects, throughout the world, on every continent except Antarctica. There are currently 1,138 trees registered by Blue Tree Project, mostly in Australia.

Some communities have taken to erecting facsimile trees instead of painting actual trees. One of the more innovative examples is a tree of fifteen basketball hoops. Unfortunately, the website for Blue Tree Project does not indicate where these artificial trees are located, nor how they were constructed.

While this endeavor is meant to send a specific, clearly posted message, what else is implied by turning trees into artistic and/or humanitarian vehicles? One message is that it is permissible to deface a natural object, at least if you have an important agenda. This is vandalism in any other context. We are also saying that nature is something that can only be improved upon by the hand of man. Natural landscapes, and the living things within them, must serve some kind of utilitarian value in order to justify their existence, even if that means reducing them to a “canvas” for artistic expression. This is not ok.

The Blue Trees (plural) is a landscape installation project by artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, designed in part to evoke thoughts about “ecological issues, such as the ecocide of our forests and climate change, and….raising our social consciousness referencing how individually and collectively we shape the world we inhabit.” His exhibitions involve painting the trunks of entire groves of trees a deep blue color.

The pinnacle of artistic hubris may be demonstrated by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their landscape-level work was temporary, and performed mostly in urban areas, wrapping buildings or monuments in fabric, usurping the profile and work of the original architects. They prided themselves on avoiding “deserted places,” focusing on “….sites already prepared and used by people, managed by human beings for human beings.” This did include vast rural expanses, though, featuring fabric fences, fabric “gates,” curtains, and other potential impediments to the normal traffic of wildlife, and obscuring scenic vistas. In Surrounded Islands, they draped a hot pink fabric skirt on the surface of the water around eleven separate islands (two were surrounded together). Who knows how marine life was affected.

Where does art cross the line into damage? Who gets the authority to decide? Do we give enough critical thought to these questions? Ideally, artistic license should not trespass on the works of the Creator, if one believes in such an entity. We should not allow historical precedent to dictate the path forward, either.

There are strong and valid arguments to support the fact that Mount Rushmore defaced a mountain held sacred by Indigenous Americans. Stone Mountain in Georgia features the carved depiction of three prominent figures of the Confederacy from the Civil War. The monument glorifies White supremacy, and overwhelms the stories of the Black people who once lived and worked there, and who still reside in local communities. It also defaces a natural landscape feature that figured prominently in Indigenous occupation of the region.

Don’t get me wrong. Art can be a powerful stimulus for positive social and cultural change. It need not be permanent nor massive in scale. I do wonder, though, what will happen when that old dead cottonwood at last falls into the river, as erosion is inevitable. Will the paint contaminate the water, or negatively affect aquatic life? Will another tree be painted to replace it?

Sources: Dimopoulos, Konstantin. 2024. “About the Blue Trees,” Kondimopoulos.
Meachim, Laura. 2019. “Blue Tree Project tackles mental health and suicide in regional Australia,” ABC News, September 30, 2019.
Powers, Benjamin. 2018. “In the Shadow of Stone Mountain,” Smithsonian Magazine.
Spellman, Rebecca. 2020. “Harrowing story behind a solitary blue tree in drought-stricken land takes a sinister turn as it’s found burned to the ground,” Daily Mail, February 17, 2020.
”Most Common Errors,”Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

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