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Trees and Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature and Culture

This exhibition offers an open-ended look at some of the many ways that trees are meaningful to humanity and important in the natural world. Featuring prints, drawings, books, and photographs, it explores both works of art that were inspired by trees and images from the arts and sciences in which trees have served as visual armatures for thought.

In viewing this exhibition, we are encouraged to rethink our answers to some basic questions: What is our responsibility to other species on our planet? What do “natural” and “unnatural” mean? What does it mean to be ecologically aware? Inevitably, it is meaningful that trees have been placed at the center of many of these discussions. There are many reasons for this, not least among them that trees are an unusually charismatic life-form. Most of us have memories about a favorite tree; “trees,” “roots,” and “branches” enjoy a rich metaphorical existence in our languages; we are attuned to the ecological importance and aesthetic characteristics of trees; we are awed by their great age and size; and we are surrounded by objects made from trees.

Perspectives on trees in the exhibition range from Charles Darwin’s simple and elegant diagram in his On the origin of species by means of natural selection, showing the evolutionary tree of life, to Mike and Doug Starn’s Structure of Thought 15, which allows us to dwell on the remarkable form of a tree and to follow our imagination to consider the myriad visual corollaries to its sophisticated branching form. Elliott Erwitt’s Bearded Man with Tree, Venice, CA whispers to us eloquently that people and plants are actually close relatives. A Yellow-breasted Bowerbird from Papua New Guinea has his bower on display, reminding us that it is not only humans who think visually and aesthetically. Finally, in addition to these—plus a fork, a fossil, two videos, and some lovely books—Trees and Other Ramifications includes an array of images by artists ranging from Jacob van Ruisdael to Ansel Adams. These works underscore the degree to which trees have served to inspire artists for generations, and they express the simple but resounding sentiment that trees are emblematic of our bonds to the natural world.

The Johnson Museum wishes to thank the staff of the Spencer Museum of Art and Brett W. Benz of the Division of Ornithology at The University of Kansas, Lawrence; Jack Elliott, associate professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University; Charles Eldermire, public education outreach associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Katherine Reagan, assistant director for collections and Ernest L. Stern Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts in Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library; Michele Brown, book conservator, Patricia Fox, assistant book conservator, and Roger Clearwater, book repair coordinator, in the Book Conservation Unit at Cornell University Library; and Kevin Moss, community outreach coordinator at Cornell Plantations.

Trees and Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature and Culture was organized by Stephen Goddard, Senior Curator of Prints & Drawings, Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, Lawrence. The exhibition was coordinated for the Johnson Museum by Andrew C. Weislogel, associate curator and master teacher. Unless otherwise specified, all works belong to the collection of the Spencer Museum of Art.

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