Artist Q & A: Robert Marchessault

1) Can you tell me about the symbolism behind some of your different trees?

Since the image of a tree itself is highly symbolic I hope each person, regardless of cultural background, can assign meaning that is specific to themselves.   Each painting of a tree or trees plays with how the environment influences growth and life.  My trees show what interests me - the way that they respond to the impact of various stressors.  I often paint bent and twisted shapes.  I love how trees can somehow survive even the hardest conditions.  I think we all can associate our own paths through life with these shapes.

Trees also present us with “beauty”.  The concept of beauty has a long history and much has been written about it.  I often strive to address this notion with my work.

2) How does your commitment to ecological responsibility intertwine with your art practice?

I have planted and nurtured thousands of trees since I was a child.  When we first purchased acreage for a home & studio in Ontario my wife, (the artist Teresa Cullen), and I planted three empty hay fields with thousands of saplings.  Today they are a beautiful pine forest.  We’ve done the same at our current smaller property near Lake Simcoe.  I am an organic gardener too.  Sustainable living in a clean sustainable environment is essential.  My paintings usually infer this.  I hope they inspire people to be concerned and activist.

3) I read in your artist statement that deserts, mountains, and vast open plains serve as great inspiration for your artwork. Where do you search for sublime landscapes?

I find these places pretty much everywhere I travel; in Anatolia, Spain, the Prairies, Rockies and especially the American Southwest.  I find the landscape and trees interest me.  The more open the space, the better I like the way trees present themselves to me.

4) How has the artistic treatment of your work changed over the years and what triggers the shifts?

I began my professional career in the late 1970s and early 80s creating abstractions that alluded to landscapes.  At the time my wife and I shared a studio in a warehouse at King and Dufferin Streets in Toronto.  The city and the art scene certainly influenced my work. 

Once we relocated to the countryside north of Toronto (Grey County) the surrounding landscape challenged me to interpret it in ways that were unique to my new perceptions.  The work shifted somewhat so that horizon, sky, hills and trees became more recognizable while expressionistic paintwork was still important.  Trees gradually became more of a focus after planting so many of them.

When we moved and built a second studio, in Oro Medonte ON in 1998, there was a giant sugar maple tree on the property.  That grand dame was nicknamed “The Queen”.  Living under her shifted my focus to trees as my main subject.  The painterly treatment has varied over the years in response to my interests in methods of making paintings, from allusions to representation in a traditional sense.  Recently, I’ve been playing with ambiguous color backgrounds as foils for tree forms.

5) Your tree paintings have a calming and meditative effect and I think this is partly because of the removal of all non-essential visual elements in their compositions.  Can you tell me about the process of reduction in your work?

A few years ago I became interested in how I could strip down my paintings to emphasize mostly the tree.  I played around for a year or two with abstracted backgrounds.  Some of these backgrounds were resolved paintings in themselves even before the tree was painted in.  This was tricky because sometimes the background became more interesting than the main subject. 

Over time I’ve worked to pare down the backgrounds to play a supporting role, like the grounding tones in a musical piece (think the rhythm section in a jazz performance). I have a strong interest in visual art that is grounded in spiritual dimensions, with an emphasis on images and objects that help us to suspend thinking and experience what’s present.  There are some Asian ink wash paintings that really inspire me. "Pine Trees" by Hasegawa Tōhaku (Japanese, 1539–1610) is one of my favorites.


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