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Trees, Air in Spotlight at KEEPING WATCH Exhibit

by John Schacht

March 14, 2016

Photos: (above) Linda Foard Roberts' portrait "Spared" in four panels; (below) Charlie Brower recreates trees using "slabwood," leftovers from lumber mills.

Dave Cable, executive director of TreesCharlotte, is looking for ways that the four-year-old group can broaden community awareness and safeguard Charlotte's tree canopy. June Lambla, founder and curator for Lambla artWORKS, wants to celebrate what Charlotte is already doing to heighten awareness about the importance of trees to the local ecosystem and sustainable living policies in general. And photographer Linda Foard Roberts is so drawn to certain trees that she includes them in her artwork as though they were family members—because for the long-time Charlotte native, their roots are the same.

Together with a host of other artists, non-profits and UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute and College of Arts + Architecture, these Charlotteans find their paths and corresponding messages converging in KEEPING WATCH, a combined art show/initiative which this year covers local air quality and tree canopy. Previous KEEPING WATCH programs highlighted plastics and recycling in 2014, and urban streams and creeks in 2015. So far this year, Andrea Polli's Particle Falls—which went up March 4 and is on display through Earth Day, April 23—has drawn most of the attention by providing real-time measurements of air particulates in the form of an animated 8-story waterfall of light projected onto the side of the UNC Charlotte Center City building.

But Particle Falls and air quality are just one part of KEEPING WATCH's environmental and artistic equation. On Friday, March 18—Arbor Day, coincidentally—the Projective Eye Gallery in the building beneath Polli's display will further explore air and tree canopy issues through the artistic visions of Roberts and four other artists (the exhibit also runs through April 23). In addition to Californian Jed Berk’s interactive floating "Blubber Bots" that make the air tangible, and Dutchman Berndnaut Smilde’s wall-sized photograph of the ephemeral indoor clouds he painstakingly creates, Virginian Charlie Brower addresses issues of mature tree canopy and clear-cutting with a life-size tree constructed from lumber mill detritus. Likewise, Canadian Robert Wiens’s life-like watercolors of tree segments highlight issues of deforestation and conservation, while Roberts’s large-format photographic images of a grand, mature tree evokes our emotional attachments to trees.

The interests of Cable, Lambla and Roberts could also be said to converge in Charlotte's oldest neighborhoods, where majestic 100-year-old willow oaks—most were planted between 1895-1923—throw their branches over the posh homes and winding roadways in an embrace that's as emblematic for Charlotte as the Eifel Tower is for Paris or Central Park for New York City. (Indeed, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted—the designer of Central Park—and Olmsted acolytes John Nolen and Earle Draper were instrumental in developing Charlotte's urban landscape.)

"I refer to it as the soul of the city," Cable says of the city's urban forest. "It's our most treasured natural resource, it defines what Charlotte is. You see that in the culture we have here, the care that people have for trees, and people's reaction who come to Charlotte for the first time. They fly in during the summertime and they see these little buildings sticking up out of the woods—'oh, there's Charlotte.' You get this sense that there really is this city in the forest."

As stately and semi-permanent as the willow oaks appear, their susceptibility is well-known to Charlotte residents trying to get anywhere in the city after a summer storm. The trees may be durable and used to "confined areas, compacted soils and bad air quality," says Cable, but "given the urban stresses that they're under they are nearing the end of their lives." Those stresses—which also include recent drought conditions and cankerworm infestations—are cumulative. Summer storms or freezing rain will claim more and more mature trees over time.

In that regard, the aging willow oaks—combined with crepe myrtles and red maples, they comprise 40 percent of the city's canopy—also symbolize the tenuous status of Charlotte's urban forest. Charlotte may have one of the best urban tree canopies in the nation, but it had been losing trees at an alarming rate—about 3 percent of the canopy between 2003-2008, Cable says. In the face of relentless development throughout Charlotte, in 2011 the city council adopted a goal of reaching 50 percent canopy coverage by 2050 (following a 1 percent uptick between 2008-2012, the percentage currently hovers around 47 percent).

But, as Cable points out, each percentage point equals about 100,000 trees. TreesCharlotte was set up in 2011 with the mission to "expand the canopy but also to diversify it," he says, pointing to a previous over-reliance on the city's three most popular trees. "It's like your investment portfolio," Cable adds. "You just have to be diversified if you're going to be resilient over time."

The numbers are, of course, key in determining immediate needs and future courses of action for the city, county and groups like TreesCharlotte. But as essential as the statistical science is, most people respond when the numbers come to life visually and emotionally. And that, Lambla says, is where an exhibit like KEEPING WATCH comes into play.

"We're looking at the relationships between air, tree canopy and water," she says. "Obviously, engaging artists is a big plus—to put the message in a visual way reaches audiences that aren't going to read about it and may not understand it unless they see examples that make them think about it in a different way. Artists have always been a gauge for us, a way to look at things differently, a way to look at issues differently. They create an emotional attachment to issues—all through history.”

The goal of public art like Particle Falls and the Projective Eye Gallery's exhibit is to connect those ecosystem dots and get the message out "beyond the choir," Lambla says. "That's why we've initiated so many projects outside the gallery as well as inside the gallery—to bring attention, and to bring people into the gallery where there are even more artists addressing the issues."

Lambla credits Roberts, executive director for the Light Factory in the early 90s, with providing the "the soul of the exhibition" in her work, Spared. In 2010, Roberts found a mature oak on a site designated for construction—thankfully, its white ribbon marked it to be spared and it still stands today. The tree "dropped of my radar," Roberts admits, until she found the negatives six months ago and put the photographs up on her website. Lambla saw it, and knew instantly that it would be a perfect fit for the KEEPING WATCH exhibit. "She was speaking to the emotional side of this and the attachments that you make to trees that were really important," Lambla says.

Roberts photographed the tree with one of the large-format view cameras (a 5-by-7-inch Conley camera in this instance) and old, imperfect lenses she favors, then pieced the negatives back together in four 42-by-60-inch panels of gelatin silver and pigment prints on German Etching paper. The 8-by-8-foot layout roughly forms the shape of a cross and, according to her artist statement, was intended to capture "the experience of standing next to such a magnificent, graceful living thing (and) revering its presence."

Even with the limitations of a computer screen, the piece succeeds in getting across what Roberts intended. The black and white portrait makes tangible the old oak's gnarled bark, its tangle of limbs and leafy canopy, just as the lens' imperfections—a sharper focus here, a duller one there—mirror those of the tree. Taking in Spared and the tree's cathedral-like expanse, subtexts of generational roots, family and memory flood in. (Spared is part of Roberts' series, Grounded, that Radius Books will publish later this year.) The aging oak conveys the same emotional impact as one's favorite childhood tree from which an old tire swings, or one's first glimpse of a stand of old growth Sequoia, quiet sentinels to centuries of human progress and folly.  

For Roberts, who's been photographing trees for over 10 years to help chronicle the roots she's forged in Charlotte, that instinctual and emotional connection to a tree precedes everything. "When I do approach a tree, I have to have this response to it," she says. "I am interested in the way they communicate to us, because I feel trees are a reflection of ourselves. So I look for emotion in a tree—this one, it's been around a long time, it's seen a lot.

"My work is more like poetry, and I feel like each image may speak to the next image, so when I show this work it's all interrelated with all the series that I do. To me the portrait of a tree is also about where I grew up, my family and the land we came from."

While not as explicit about it in, say, the manner social realists might employ, Roberts says the environmental concerns and notions of stewardship that an exhibit like KEEPING WATCH embodies always inform her tree photographs. Like the other artwork Lambla has chosen here, the idea is not to implore action by scaring the viewer with post-apocalyptic imagery of denuded forest land or smog-shrouded Beijing on its worst day—"The Doomsday message is a stalemate; it paralyzes action," she says. Instead, the idea is to celebrate what is being done to ward off an ecological Doomsday and remind us—through beauty, invention and emotion—what's at stake.

If that blurs the line between advocacy and art, that's fine with Lambla; good art should always move the viewer out of one frame of mind and into another.   

"There does not have to be a line between them," Lambla says. "A good piece of art speaks to a number of different people in a number of different ways. They bring their history, their experiences to viewing that art. So there's no ‘I get it’ needed. Some people will understand and underline intention, but it doesn't have to be understood the same way by everybody.

"You want to celebrate what you do well and your successes and what can work. So knowing what creates particulate matter is what works with (Particle Falls). Valuing tree canopy and sparing trees can work in developmental senses and the planning of our communities in the future."

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Tags: Trees, Charlotte, environment, pollution, willow oaks, photography, Giant Sequoia, Linda Foard Roberts, Lambla artWORKS, TreesCharlotte, UNC Charlotte, Projective Eye Gallery

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