Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Posted inCreative Voices

‘Tis the season when an estimated 30 million fir trees of various species are sold in the US to people who celebrate Christmas. Their needled branches become the seasonal centerpiece in homes across America, decorated with sparkling ornaments, blinking lights, and other spangles. Meanwhile, leafless deciduous trees must be pleased to have been spared the axe. The presence of these natural beauties in our homes can remind us how much we owe to the thousands of species of trees that adorn our planet, clean our air, and enrich our lives.

As a proud tree hugger, not a day goes by that I don’t revel in my arboreal obsession. En route to my studio in the morning, I greet familiar trees with a passing glance and notice how they might have changed since yesterday. This routine is nothing new; as my journals over decades can attest, drawings of trees are a common theme. While they can be challenging to render, they are a joy to observe for their scale, structure, color, patterns, texture, variety, natural magnificence, and extraordinary design.

In 2016, an overwhelming attraction to trees, what they are, how they live, and why they are essential became a defining theme in my art. I’d just read Peter Wohlleben’s bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees, whose astonishing insights into the science and behavior of trees gripped my soul and guided me into forests. These majestic life forms have provided me with both solitude and community. If I choose to be in a crowd, let them be oaks, beeches, sycamores, maples, elms, and spruce.

I enjoy seeing trees for their abstract qualities. Conifers with their dominant conical shape are like geometric sculptures, often in rhythmic clusters. Their leafy cousins, such as hickories, birches, and cottonwoods, draw lines and shapes against the sky with limbs that twist in every direction. Trees have cast a spell on French landscape painter Camille Corot, British master Davis Hockney, and American Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell, inspiring each to make great art.

The need to be in the presence of magnificent trees has taken me on pilgrimages to visit some “living legends.” In California, I saw the 275 foot General Sherman, the world’s largest tree measured in volume. Nearby, the haunting landscape of Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to some of the oldest living trees, with several exceeding 4000 years of age. At an elevation of 10,000 feet, their knurled and leafless forms have stood sentry over the surrounding White Mountain since Egyptians built pyramids.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to fully express my fascination with trees as a visiting artist in residency at the American Academy in Rome. During my month-long visit, I spent days visiting Rome’s many beautiful parks and gardens. I fell in love with the towering parasol pines, their sinuous trunks, and cloud-like crowns. Additionally, the majestic Lebanon cedars and sculpted cypress recall paintings from the Renaissance. These three species are featured prominently in the mythological landscape I created.

Over three weeks of work resulted in a massive painting in pastel wash, measuring 55″ x 160″ on 15 sheets of watercolor paper. In addition to my homage to select Italian flora, I incorporated an illusion of the legendary Roman “She Wolf” that emerges from the trees. Look closely, once seen, she cannot be unseen.

Estimates for when trees first appeared on Earth range from 300 to 400 million years ago. However, a relative newcomer is the ginkgo tree commonly found in cities, notable for its delicate fan-shaped leaf and pungent smelling fruit. This living fossil has been essentially unchanged for more than 200 million years, so think about that the next time you see one on the street!

As you add the finishing touches to your holiday tree, I offer an English forester’s proverb for some perspective on our leafy neighbors: “It takes 100 years for a tree to grow, 100 years for a tree to live and 100 years for a tree to die.”

Next month: “I Wish I Created That.”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.