I don’t have a really good image of the first tree person I made, only this scan from a from a group art show catalog. I made it after I had an encounter with a veteran who had lost his legs. He was a social misfit and often homeless. When I met him, he lived in a boarding house housed mostly by drug addicts and alcoholic men. He had some paranoia and had no faith in the medical system. He had a tremendous amount of faith in himself, though. He made his way about on a pallet he’d fitted out with wheels. “I was a tall man once. War did this to me. I’m not going to sit in a chair and pretend they didn’t take my legs.”
He had a sinewy hard torso that ended abruptly. He knotted the legs of his trousers around his groin, the fabric of the empty pant legs padding his simple launch pad. His arms were like oak limbs and his hand were huge. He’d been scooting around on the wheeled pallet for decades when I met him. His hands had grown into magnificent sculptures of the callous world through which he made his solitary way.
I didn’t get to know him well. I don’t know if anyone did. He repelled any efforts I made to understand or connect and my own life was busy. His strong image and deep rooted emotions stuck with me. I had just started using dolls as a medium for communicating about bodies in transition and this was the result. My cloth sculpting skills were not as developed then but I still think this piece had a lot of power.
This other tree person I made only a few years ago. It’s based both on the myth of Daphne who was turned into a tree to preserve her virginity and individuality, and the myth that the spirits of the trees roam freely and in beauty until their trees are cut down.
I used these as a metaphor for the strong, spirited women I have known who have quadriplegia. It’s such a nightmare to think of loosing all body movement, but these women had managed to find the power to organize complicated lives and let their spirits take root and reach toward the sky.
When the movie star Christopher Reeve became quadriplegic, one of the comments he made as he recovered, was that for the first time he’d learned to “just be.” There’s so much power in that. Almost all cultures use trees as a metaphor for wisdom. How wise can the stilled body become? As we learn to exist in these transformed physical states, what fruits and leaves of wisdom will we sprout and share?