Sandra Allen, born in 1963, has been using trees as the subject of her stunning large-scale drawings since 2001. Appropriate to her work, she lives and works in the small New England town of Hingham, Massachusetts. Previously a painter, Allen now focuses entirely on drawing trees, using mostly graphite on white paper. The result is a photorealistic drawing that requires viewers to come closer in order to see the hand of the artist in the graphite lines and shading. Allen explains her feelings on this form of art: “Drawing is both a noun and a verb. The action registers the process of the making and the image becomes an object of contemplation. Drawing is also one of our most basic primitive instincts and I consider it the closest medium to thought.”
Allen photographs the trees around her for inspiration, whether she is in Massachusetts or away on trips to places such as Costa Rica. She has drawn trees of all kinds, including beech trees as well as palm trees. To begin her drawings, she overlays a grid onto the photograph and translates each section onto paper, making conscious decisions on what to emphasize and what to leave out in her depiction. This involves strong concentration on the details of the surface of the tree which Allen calls “an incredible sculptural narrative.”
Allen’s tree drawings have been called “portraits” because of their photorealistic quality and intricate attention to detail. As in realistic portraits, her trees have imperfections and odd qualities such as intertwining branches and twisting trunks. With the intensity of her admiration, it makes sense that she would one day create a drawing of the largest tree (by trunk volume) in the world. This individual tree, nicknamed the General Sherman tree, is a Giant Sequoia located in California in the Sequoia National Park. Allen’s Ballast, a multi-panel drawing of a section of the General Sherman, is 18 ½ feet across, only half the width of the actual tree (36 ½), and 11 feet high (the tree itself is 275 feet tall). Even at the reduced size, the viewer feels miniscule in comparison.
The New Britain Museum of American Art recently exhibited Allen’s work as part of the NEW/NOW series. The exhibition was on view from October 30, 2009 until January 24, 2010. Her piece Risorgimento, is now owned by the Museum.
The structure, form and surface of a tree record the strength, fragility, growth and endurance of its life over time. I see a correlation between the development of the human psyche and personality and the visual narrative that is evident on the surface and form of a tree. Using drawing as my medium and the tree as my subject has freed me to explore and experiment with the subtleties and possibilities of their visual meaning and metaphor. With each piece I try to push myself to a place that I have never gone before.
Visit her website for more information, images, and news.
How do you feel about Allen’s tree drawings being called portraits? Do you agree or disagree?
How do you feel about an artist using only one subject continuously in their art?
Have any of you seen her work in person, perhaps recently at NBMAA? What effect, if any, did it have on you?