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“This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived”.
Richard Powers, The Overstory
Richard Powers’ 2018 novel about trees – and the indelible but often invisible mark that they make on each individual human’s life – was a thought-provoking, inspiring read for the artist Blaze Cyan, and it is not difficult to see why The Overstory has spoken to her. Her new exhibition, her first at Eames Fine Art, is called A Landscape of Trees. It is filled with etchings, woodcuts, wood engravings and drawings that ruminate on the power, beauty and multifaceted appearance of these quiet leafy giants. During this exhibition, the Eames Fine Art Print Room has become not only ‘A Landscape of Trees’, but also, as mentioned in the quotation above, an entire ‘world of trees’, where humans are welcome visitors.
Blaze’s childhood in Wiltshire was the beginning of her fascination with the wooded environment. Her father worked closely with nature and her family lived isolated from others, in “the middle of nowhere”, as Blaze puts it. Blaze spent her childhood confidently exploring the woods on her own and still to this day a heavily wooded area to her is “the most amazing and relaxing place to be”. The woods at night have a particular resonance, since her favourite time as a child was when she would roam the forested areas helping her father in the evenings. There was, and is, something enchanting and magical about the Wiltshire woodland, particularly at night, and she still makes regular visits there.
To those of us who did not grow up running through dark woods, crepuscular areas threaded with thick, whispering trees can also be ominous places. The inclusion of a wood engraving depicting the raven from Edgar Allan Poe’s notoriously eerie poem (Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore’) more tangibly points to this perilous side of Blaze’s work and can encourage viewers to look at pieces like Nocturne I or Windsor VII in a more menacing light. In these works, respectively, startling white branches jump out from an inky blackness and a trunk twists like something out of Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War series. Overall, though, Blaze’s oeuvre attempts to, and succeeds in, capturing both the mystery and the comfort of these natural beings and the spaces that they inhabit. The scenes in her etchings Dark Woods and Dark Falls not only suggest the pitch-black towering dominance of the woods over the insignificant human, but the bands of trees could also be perceived as reassuring guardians who envelop with their rustling watchfulness the lone walker who traverses the woods at night.
Of course, Blaze’s work is strongly rooted in the long-established English pastoral tradition – particularly within printmaking. There can often be an intimidating or paralising weight of precedent and tradition for artists who work with landscape in this country, but Blaze brings many fresh angles to the ancient woods. She is a part of a group called The Arborealists: artists who all nurture a similar passion for trees. One of their art historical heroes is Samuel Palmer, whose Romantic etching lines are legendary both within and beyond the printmaking community. While this history is important, Blaze does not want to be too tethered to the past. She wants her pieces to convey a “living rather than dead landscape”. This living landscape comes through in the animated personalities with which she imbues each tree or group of trees. These arboreal identities can subtly shift and turn with each year of the tree’s life and so, to Blaze, the trees with the best personalities are the ancient or veteran examples. When searching for these beings, she tends to find the most charismatic ancient trees on protected lands, such as those owned by the National Trust, where trees have been left alone, relatively free from human interference, for hundreds or thousands of years. Each passing year not only adds a ring to the cross-section of the trunks of these trees, but also further inscribes the personality that Blaze is looking for into their branches and bark. Every one of these ancient trees could be the subject of dozens of prints or drawings from various angles and at different times of day, each artwork capturing a new facet of the tree’s existence. The subject is an inexhaustible one, and this exhibition is just a taste of not only the deep wells of character within trees, but also of the unique viewpoints that Blaze displays in her artistic practice. She is just a human, documenting the world of trees that we all inhabit.
Christine Slobogin, April 2021