The exhibit “Trees for Life” highlights the ten primary tree species of a geographic forest community that covered most of the Maritimes and New England landscape for thousands of years prior to European settlement.  By inviting us to “walk through” the ancient woodlands of the old growth Acadian forest, well known Nova Scotia painter and art educator Nancy Stevens draws attention to the most existential crisis of our time – climate change – with a discerning integration of visual narrative and farsighted intention.  She once said that “painting is a reflection of the place in my life”.  Welcome to the once and future woods surrounding Stevens, and all of us, in this part of the world.

Nancy Stevens’ distinguished career as an artist has been immensely varied.  With beginnings in television, commercial art and realism, her later high profile public exhibitions have been explorations of a more philosophical nature, visual and intellectual problem solving through abstract painting.   Increasingly influenced by the French post-impressionist painter Seurat and the contemporary British artist, Bridget Riley, she began to investigate transitory elements of time, space, and memory in her painting, layering gradations of colour and subtle pattern shifts with a finely tuned pointillist style.  In “Trees for Life” this technique of juxtaposing small dots of pure colour so that they are blended at a distance by the viewer’s eye, brings a vibrant chemistry to the artist’s color hues, animating the life force and dignity of these magnificent wild trees.  Stevens lifts each one of them up, out of ordinary soil, into a painted spotlight, and asks us to understand, honour and ultimately protect them.  These grounded, living beings of the physical world (identifiable in Latin and Mi’kmaq) become illuminated with an emotional investment that takes them towards more timely, cerebral consideration. 

Trees such as the White Pine, Red Oak, and Eastern Hemlock are all characters that figure large in our region’s cultural and material heritage. Here they are, with seven more of their arboreal neighbors, presented in striking, haloed silhouette, surrounded by carefully chosen, often political, details of their industrial and domestic use, accompanied by important biological particulars – leaves, seeds, cones, and harmful insects.  Stevens is both artist and educator here, informing us, with the use of sinuous, curving lines and stylized ornamentations from nature, trademark Art Nouveau motifs, adding warmth and organic emphasis to the factual, environmental stories of each individual tree.

It was after viewing an exhibit of work by the famous Czech Art Nouveau painter, Alphonse Mucha, in Prague, that Stevens chose the centering format for her images, encircling each tree with a unifying sphere.  Mucha saw the circle as the most perfect shape in nature and used it often in his commercial designs and theatrical posters. Worldwide, the circle is a sacred symbol of wholeness, reminding us that we are inseparable from Earth and from each other. Indigenous peoples have always recognized the power of the circle as an access point to a field of higher wisdom.  In a circle, all are equal, all have a part to play. The cycle of life and death in an old growth forest is a self-sustaining continuum, key to its health and well-being, season after season.

Scientists know there is a biological interdependence in the relationship between trees in a sound forest ecosystem; they know that trees communicate by intricate means of chemical and electrical signals.  Trees micro-manage their own immediate habitats by increasing moisture, calming the wind, sending nutrients where they are needed.  Old trees, left to live, inherently hold the promise of the best adaptive genetics for new trees yet to come. A single tree is only as strong as the complexity of the forest that surrounds it.   

Nancy Stevens has painted her “trees for life” as individuals but in the gallery forest she has planted firmly in our imagination, we start to feel the invisible ties of collective intelligence between the pine, the spruce, the ash, the birch…  We, who are also beings nourished by earth and “set free by the light of the sky”, grow and expend our lives, our resources and capabilities way faster and less judiciously than trees.   But we can learn from them to think in longer, slower terms, to be more resilient, to act together to protect the environment with timelessness and wholeness in mind. Diminishing the biological integrity of a forest, by intense clearcutting, by species preference, by plantation mentality, results in an impoverishment with far reaching consequences, not only for trees, but for all life on this planet.

There are many references to time in these paintings – seasonal rhythms, carbon sink cycles, natural burn mechanisms, large and small clocks without hands…. Restoring old growth in our forests will take way more time than most of us viewing “Trees for Life” have lived or will live.  Nancy Stevens is well aware that climate change itself comes with a critical count down but, as a mature artist, it was her time to address it, even if it brings a future she won’t eventually see.

Beth Parker