There's no better celebration of any season than the decorated tree adorned with the rich symbolism of nature—my ritual to inform and inspire you in the journey called life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

nature versus grace

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? 
—Job 38: 4,7

THE MOVIE The Tree of Life opens, with this scripture from the Book of Job. It follows with many more existential questions calmly voiced-over the film's amazing sun-soaked cinematography. The characters of the family it focuses on are the voices asking these questions. The movie takes you on a journey through time and memory that is as intense as it is calm. 

THE MOTHER pronounces in the opening dialog: "There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow. Nature, we are told, is selfish and full of itself. Grace is love, and the giving of oneself to a higher calling or power." It's a broad-brushed statement of the constant struggle of patriarchy versus matriarchy—nature and grace—if you will. But the point of the movie is how we all eventually come to terms with nature and the harsh realities of life and death. Our inherent grace only stays intact in finding love throughout the journey.

THE QUIET MOMENTS of the movie are interspersed with open-ended questions about life and a particular death of a son and brother. Where were you? How did you let this happen? Was he bad? It isn't a film made from narrative, but rather thoughts and images . . . "more like an experience, than a movie," as Devin said, with whom I first saw the movie. It took us on a journey through the foundations of life itself. This journey pulls you up by your heartstrings. 

I FOUND myself quietly tearing up in moments I didn't expect. The movie tugs at your inner core and brings up emotions from deep inside. It forces you to relate to the characters because their story is told in a universal way, rather than completely delving into the ego of personalities. Its success is found in relating the vastness of our common connectedness to time and memory.

IT ESPECIALLY resonates with me since the movie's family is based in the American South—Texas in the 1950s. Since I'm also a boy from a small Southern town (in Alabama), there are many instances in the film that that moved me closely to my own memories. The movie jumps from a place in the 1950s, to modern day, back to the primordial beginnings of life on earth in a dreamlike way. I grew up in the '60s instead, but it resonated in an almost direct way, since small town life then had not quite caught up with the tumultuous sixties. Back then, we only had the evening news instead of a 24/7 barrage of information and mindless chatter on television. It was a much quieter existence with time to sit and think.

BECAUSE OF THIS, the movie is not one that most audiences will have the patience for within a blend of summer blockbusters in this age of extreme stimulation. But I am one who can enjoy something just for the visual aspect.  This movie is at-once, both visual and visceral—and I've seen it twice. The gentle revelations made are like quiet visual poetry. It only directly informs through universal thoughts and snippets of visual consciousness. It's not pretense, but a genuine and sincere impressionistic work of art.

HOW DO YOU make a tree for such a broad subject? Have you ever planted a tree to commemorate an event or a person and seen its growth years later? How do you decide what to do? Devin brought me these beautiful hand-painted white chocolate frogs from a recent visit he made to New York. His challenge was for me to do a rain forest tree with them somehow. The more I thought about it, and knowing the scale and other problems I might have with a more traditional tree incorporating the camouflage-like frogs, I decided to use a series of plates with leaves from six different trees as a simple background as an implied way to serve them since they are edible "ornaments." It's a sort of studied communion. And it could be construed as a representation of the vastness of a rainforest in the most simple terms.

IF ONE STUDIES the picture, the negative spaces between the plates form a sort of tree. I thought a certain simplicity was the most direct way to show the multiplicity of specimen leaves from trees found growing near each other, yet relay each tree's ability to remember to make its own unique leaves in the cycle of the seasons.

TREE FROGS | (Top and above) In using the hand painted chocolate frogs made by Knipschildt Chocolatier, a gift from Devin from Dean & Deluca in New York City, NY; I selected leaves from trees while out on a morning walk with his dog. The Sam&Squito by Xiahe Co. bone china plates are subtly-patterned with a curved mesh design (which is hard to discern here).

TREE OF LIFE | (Above) I was definitely inspired by the poetry of this beautiful movie, written and directed by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Bitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. Here you see the posters made for the movie. The poster (Right) is simply more arresting.

THE WAY OF THE BROTHER | In the many reviews I've read about this movie, the following one by S. Brent Plate may be my favorite in making sense of the movie's complex themes. It also repeats a voice-over quote from the brother Jack from late in the movie that I think helps one understand there is no triumph of one over the other in the unresolved "versus" of nature and grace: “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Link to the review/essay here.

LEAFSNAP APP | (Left) Leafsnap is a free mobile application for your smart phone or iPad. It is the first in a series of electronic field guides being developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, using visual recognition software to help identify tree species from photographs of their leaves on a white background. The app still has some kinks to work out (for instance, it works best only if you "snap it" through the app, rather than uploading a photo you've already made to it, but the more people use it, the better it will become.

photography and styling by Darryl Moland

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