There is a heap of apple prunings outside my studio door. The size of the pile might make you think that it contains all the pruned branches that came out of the orchard this winter, but it’s only a small portion. We burned a two-story tower in an intense bonfire a month ago. All that remained was a circle of charcoal. Would that it were so easy to release the debris and the clutter that accumulates year to year in our lives. As I spread these residues throughout the orchard, I imagine how it will help the soil: carbon, in the form of biochar. The no-longer-useful provides sustenance. What if our own life prunings supported our future growth?
The tangled heap outside my studio door waits because I committed to use apple prunings to make sculpture. There is so much wood that comes off the trees every year; it astonishes me every time. I’ve tried before, a few times, making an 8-foot hanging apple ladder and a few smaller mobiles using branches, string, and bronze figures. They are good sculptures, but the branch is still a branch; I didn’t unfasten it from its normal function.
I have in mind something else for all these twigs, but what exactly I am not sure. My own life has become so connected to apples — their seasons and needs, how to grow healthier fruit, the intricacies of bud development — I want my art to also interrelate with the apple tree cycles.
When people ask me, “Are you an artist or an orchardist?” or “What is more important the orchard or your art?” I respond that it is being an artist, because that’s what informs everything I do in the orchard. And so it follows that if my life as an artist is inextricably connected to this orchard, I want to try to use the prunings as a medium. A painter uses paint to create a world of form and space, color and movement, light and dark. I wonder how and if I can do the same with these prunings?
It doesn’t hurt that I am committed to putting up an apple-themed exhibit next January in The Gallery at Villageworks in West Acton. The challenge is that the work has to hang on the walls and not extend out. And I can’t use the floor, because the space serves for movies, concerts, and performances. So I am limited to a slightly bushy two dimensions.
My art is often following a knotted path that leads to something unknown. There is always a challenge, and moments (many) when I don’t think I can do it. I’m not actually sure I can use these prunings. They are delicate, wispy, all irregular with little side shoots, or long side shoots, buds, or tears in the bark. There are some stronger branches, too. We will see . . . but I have begun. I recognize this gnawing feeling as if the rope I am hanging onto is fraying and I have to do it before I fall.
There is that untenable, unknowable truth in all great art, the driving impetus of the artist that the viewer senses. The artist is trying to express something that is unknown, but very real. One of my favorite paintings is by Paul Gauguin and it is on view at the Museum of Fine art in Boston.
The entire cycle of human life is in this painting — old age, youth, middle age, the sacred, the animal, the mundane and the mystery. In the center is an androgynous figure reaching for an apple. Art that inspires me asks for a dialogue. It always leaves me with questions. Maybe that is one of its secrets; while art strives to express the unknown, it can only express a brief moment of truth. There are no definitive answers, only more questions. I’m hoping that working with the apple prunings will push me to explore in ways I haven’t done before as an artist and that working with this new challenge will be yet another gift of the orchard.