In Pursuit of Venerable Trees

21 Jan 2011 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

IAN WESTACOTT is an Australian printmaker currently living and working in the north of Scotland. His exhibition of etchings, Venerable Trees, has just opened at Royal Botanics Edinburgh. We met at his home and print studio near the coastal village of Dornoch and talked about his latest work in the glow of the wood burning stove that warms the family kitchen, writes Alison Munro.

Ian Westacott grew up in Myrtleford, Victoria, where he has a property and where his parents still live. Influenced by the interior of his parents’ dry cleaning factory and the industrial landscape of Melbourne where he studied, Westacott‘s previous subjects have been dominated by factories, mills and townscapes, and his work has been typically large-scale and structural. His latest exhibition (which draws on the Scottish landscape for its subjects) is very different, but as he explains, it grew out of his Myrtleford childhood and reflects the pull of his Australian home.

Ian Westacott's etching Cairn of the Wolf

Ian Westacott's etching Cairn of the Wolf

“There was a clump of box willows near the courts where my mum played tennis. Once when I was little I was playing in the branches and I fell off right into the tree – the branches curved inwards and the tree caught and held me like this.” He cradles his arms. “When I was a bit older I played cricket with men who worked the land or in the forests. They were naturally athletic sportsmen – tall, fit and muscled. To me they were like the trees they worked with, all bones and sinews.“

Years later, as an art teacher in the rural primary schools near his Scottish home and with two small boys of his own, Westacott unexpectedly found himself returning to these memories.

“It all started a few years ago with a tree near here. It was perfect for climbing – low limbs and on the edge of a hill so you could practically walk into it. There were bits of a tree house in it and the scarring from generations of other structures. The mums and dads of the village had had tree houses there as well as today’s kids.”

For nearly a year Westacott drew this tree again and again, fascinated by the way generations of children’s games had bruised and shaped it. One day he arrived with his etching plates and it had been cut into logs, cleared to make an access road for a new property.

Ian Westacott's etching Belfron Punishment Oak

Ian Westacott's etching Belfron Punishment Oak

The experience compelled him to seek out and draw other trees in Scotland that were ‘on the edge’. Trees like the Cadzow oaks, a forest of 300 giant crumbling oak trees thought to have been planted in the 12th century. Or the Glen Loyne pinewood; a remnant of the great Caledonian Forest now accessible only by a rough mountain path. The fifty or so survivors in Glen Loyne have an average age of 450 years and were considered too small or too twisted to be worth logging when the great forests were cut down.

Westacott carries his etching plates to the trees and works up close. This first half hour or so is when the seeds of the image are planted. “Trees are pivotal things in our lives and people and stories spin off them” he says. “When I draw, everything is silent but my mind is racing, full of ideas and thoughts. It’s a ‘peaceful race’.

“It’s been a way of starting again for me. A lot of my previous subjects have been structural and large scale where speed is everything and accidents happen all the time. In contrast these trees are very stark and reduced and quite small. I’ve had to slow down and focus right in.

“I’m working on the surface very carefully. Everything is linear. It’s challenging for me to work like this and I risk being conservative and constrained. But I’ve discovered that the slow process of etching brings out aspects that resonate with me, things that have significance. The slow building-up of lines on the plate and then the careful inking and wiping helps me know and understand the tree.“

Westacott adds with a smile: “Some years ago I wouldn’t have been able to draw them, but working with a mate of mine I discovered the confidence to have a go at anything.” That mate was Tasmanian artist Raymond Arnold and their decade-long collaboration resulted in their joint exhibitions, Double Vision, which toured Scotland, Paris, Albury and Melbourne in 2005-7.

Westacott believes working with Arnold allowed him to find a new direction and to become more ambitious in his subject matter. He explains that when he was a student he was inspired by the starkness and humility of Alberto Giacometti’s work. The influence has remained with him and is one of the forces pushing him forward. “Giacometti was fascinated by the human figure and I think that drawing trees rather than factories has been a secret way for me to get closer to drawing people.“

Ian Westacott's etching Cromwell's Chestnut

Ian Westacott's etching Cromwell's Chestnut

Over the last three years Westacott has been seeking out and drawing special heritage trees. Some have very particular historical associations – the Cromwell tree is said to have been planted in 1651 on the day that the city of Perth fell to Cromwell’s troops – others are simply very old. What they all have in common is relative obscurity, for apart from a handful of enthusiasts, nobody pays them much attention.

“Despite the historic and cultural significance of these trees, they are not generally held high in the public consciousness. Someone can drive a bulldozer over a tree and get away with a relatively small fine or kill it slowly over time with no penalty at all. Trees have to be mythologised before they become part of our internal imagination – had Turner painted any of these trees they would get a lot more protection than they do.”

His exhibition features 22 subjects from all parts of Scotland. Many have jagged broken crowns from ancient injuries and trunks that are twisted beyond belief by wind and weather. Some have been worn away by human or animal activity, their bark has been chewed, nails driven into them, stones piled high upon their roots – and yet they have survived.

Westacott winces as he describes what he found in his search, as if he feels the trees’ pain as his own. “A tree shows its scars and knocks but keeps on living and enduring. As people we carry around injuries we had as children and the scars of our emotional lives. We keep them locked away in our personalities and under our clothes, but with a tree it’s all out there on view. In a way these pictures reflect my state of mind over the last few years. The trees are very like bodies for me and I’m living out myself in them. Take the Cromwell tree for instance, it’s twisted and contorted and clearly not comfortable with itself. I drew that in the year before and after my hernia operation and that’s exactly how I felt!”

“Many of the subjects I drew in the past have gone. The factories in Melbourne have closed and been demolished, a tree that I was drawing last summer in Victoria burned down in the bushfires. Even while I was drawing I knew they were frail and that I had to catch a memory of them for myself, before they fell.

“All the trees here are on the edge, some right on the edge. History says that they can’t live much longer. The Cadzow oaks are defying time: they shouldn’t have survived the industrial age. Scientifically they’ve gone beyond their natural range and it’s incongruous that they’re still hanging in there. Maybe they’ve survived because they’re in a big group of trees – they’re a tribe.”

He opens the stove door and carefully feeds in two pieces of birch wood. Out of the window I catch a single blue gum swaying in the darkening afternoon sky, a little piece of home in a foreign landscape.

He sees me looking and adds, “Most of the trees I’ve drawn are isolated and alone. We all know how it feels to be like that. As we get older we identify more with the frailty of situations and bodies. It grows in our consciousness with age.”

Ian Westacott's etching Gearrchoille Wood Don't Worry Tree

Ian Westacott's etching Gearrchoille Wood Don't Worry Tree

Venerable Trees – Etchings by Ian Westacott, is at the John Hope Gateway Gallery, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, until 6 March 2011.

Alison Munro is a freelance writer based in Dornoch.

© Alison Munro, 2011