TREE OF LIFE
by John D. O’Hern
Scherer and Ouporov’s roots go deep—deep to the wellsprings of life; deep into the culture of East and West; deep into themselves. They know that all is one, non-dual: East/West, self/other, sky/earth.
Trees have long been a major theme in Scherer and Ouporov’s work and in their lives. The landscape of their Florida home, once surrounded by magnificently complex and sheltering banyan trees, was left barren after two devastating hurricane seasons. Suzanne and Pasha write “As we plant new trees and watch the rapid growth of life replacing that which was destroyed we are reminded daily of nature’s endless cycle of death, transformation, and renewal.”
The banyan tree symbolizes both spirit and matter, sending multiple roots down into the earth and spreading sheltering branches into the sky. The Tree of Life is a physical link between the Cosmos and the Underworld, both masculine and feminine, both symbolic of regeneration. Independent of its symbolism throughout the world’s cultures, the tree’s physical presence is mysterious—sheltering, threatening, enticing, beckoning us into its inner sanctum.
The birth of their son Nicolas renewed the artists’ use of trees in their work. My Mother’s Hands (2005) depicts young Nicolas in his mother’s embrace, both nestled among the roots and under the branches of a banyan tree. The painting is a transition from their earlier paintings of the Celestial Alphabet or “angelic script” based on the stars and thought to have been sent by heavenly angels to form the original language of the Garden of Eden. The chromosome-like letters of the earlier paintings resemble bits of the scintillating heavens sparkling in the landscape. Here the words running along the roots of the tree are from the section “Matter” in Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her.
Griffin holds that matter and spirit are not separate. The energy of spirit animates matter or, matter is a system of energy. Philosopher Ken Wilber writes in his book A Theory of Everything:
“The Greeks had a beautiful word, Kosmos, which means the patterned Whole of all existence, including the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms. Ultimate reality was not merely the cosmos, or the physical dimension, but the Kosmos, or the physical and emotional and mental and spiritual dimensions altogether. Not just matter, lifeless and insentient, but the living Totality of matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit. The Kosmos!”
The quotation from Griffin written among the banyan roots, reads:
“I know I am made from this earth, as my mother’s hands were made from this earth, as her dreams came from this earth and all that I know, I know in this earth, the body of the bird, this pen, this paper, these hands, this tongue speaking, all that I know speaks to me through this earth and I long to tell you, you who are earth too, and listen as we speak to each other of what I know: the light is in us.”
Nicolas’s perfect little naked body is embraced by his naked mother among the roots of the banyan tree. All is natural and healthful, child wrapped in mother’s arms wrapped in roots of trees wrapped in the spirit of Being. He is equally safe and at home among the roots of the banyan in “Twilight,” (2004) one of the Celestial Alphabet series
Innocently naked and lightly clothed children (as well as adults) abound in the work of Scherer and Ouporov. The artists embrace the concept of the Greek “Kosmos” embodying the wholeness of being. Embracing wholeness is a rare phenomenon in today’s world in which Us vs. Non-Us or “Other” predominates. Spirit and matter are separate in much of Western society and depictions of the nude, especially those of children, are viewed as unwholesomely sexual. The interpretive problem is one of perspective.
There are those who see the naked form as the embodiment of fallen Mankind. Their perspective is based on the Genesis story in the Hebrew Bible which, ironically, involves a treee.
“And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil…. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
Before The Fall, Adam and Eve are described as “both naked, the man and his wife, and [they] were not ashamed.” After The Fall, Adam responds to God:
“I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And God answered, “Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?”
Early Christian texts unearthed in the Egyptian desert in 1945 near the city of Nag Hammadi contain the Gospel of Thomas, a list of 144 sayings attributed to Jesus. Saying 37 recounts an exchange between Jesus and his disciples.
“His disciples said, ‘When will you be shown forth to us and when shall we behold you?’ Jesus said, ‘When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take your garments and put them under your feet like little children and tread upon them, then [you] will see the child of the living. And you will not be afraid.’”
From this perspective and from that of traditions which do not find the human condition “fallen,” nakedness is natural and good.
From the perspective of a 21st century parent, however, allowing a child to model nude exposes both parent and child to ridicule and accusations of bad parenting and child endangerment.
From the perspective of the artists, the scarcity of nude models ouside the circle of the their family and friends, has offered an occasion for experimenting with painting drapery. On a visit to the Fra Angelico exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art they studied the diaphanous drapes on the infant Christ. Back in the studio they began painting transparent drapery with egg tempera and oil glazes. The results can be seen in Newborn (2006) which was also their first venture into creating angelic creatures.
The artists’ fascination with angels began when they were researching the Celestial Alphabet and discovered the “angelic script.” Angels were depicted as guardians of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
The winged “Newborn” lies safely within the carved metaphorical vessel of the icon panel and is surrounded by excerpts from a Seminole song-poem “Song for Bringing a Child into the World,” and William Blake’s “A Cradle Song.” Again, inspired by their study of the Fra Angelico paintings, they experimented with gilding by stamping inscribing and painting the surface of the gold leaf with oil glazes.
Talking Tree (2006) was inspired by Nicolas’s inventing a story of a talking tree filled with animals. The striking spiral motif is based on Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life design for the dining room walls of Josef Hoffman’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905-1911). A 15th century Persian miniature of “Alexander and the Talking Tree” depicts the great leader beneath a tree from which sprouts human and animal heads.
In this exhibition Scherer and Ouporov have literally expanded on the Klimt design once again to make a 64 x 100 inch gold vinyl tree form which is adhered to the wall. Twelve small circular panels of figures depicted as angels with peacock feather wings are attached to the spirals of the tree. Quotations on each of the panels range from Goethe to St. Francis de Sales. A precedent in their own work is the 1998 “Tree Gate” in which six tempera panels are attached to six etched bronze panels depicting a tree of life.
The venture into cut vinyl is not a great departure for the two artists who are known for their mastery of the ancient technique of egg tempera icon painting as well as fine silverpoint drawings. They use photography in the course of their work and photography has become, in some cases, their work. Yet, they combine early techniques such as gilding and large format photographs with the latest technology. As they write, “As in all of our work [the pieces] address universal ideas with highly symbolic imagery and the connection of humanity to the environment.”
We sense the meditative, disciplined process of their work. Trees have given of their essence to provide the support for the clay, gold leaf, and pigments. They are reborn in these exquisite paintings.
Scherer and Ouporov’s entire being goes into their work, connecting spiritual and physical at such a deep level that the viewer can share in their works at a primal, visceral level. Even their breath is important to their work. In a passage as sensitive and eloquent as the visual art they make, they describe the process of gilding:
The act of gilding itself symbolizes the “breath of life” because when we apply the gold, we must breathe deeply from within onto the clay bole for it to adhere. The moisture from one’s breath wets and creates a tacky surface, allowing a perfect bond. The clay and the gold together represent man’s dual cosmic and earthly nature, material and spiritual sides. Gold is used sparingly and not as a decorative element, to cover the red clay or our ego. When the red clay shows through it means that “our ego is getting in the way."
Scherer and Ouporov’s roots go deep and they yield fruit of surpassing beauty which nourishes us and leads us safely to new knowledge where we can experience the Kosmos.
John D. O’Hern
Arnot Art Museum