Trees speak to Diane Barcelo. Since childhood, when she walks in the woods, she hears beyond wind whistling through branches and the rustle of leaves. She hears the inner voices of the forest calling out to her, reminding her that there is so much more going on, underneath the surface.
And so, when last October’s Superstorm Sandy gifted the New London artist with the remains of a giant old oak tree, which, until it came crashing down, had stood in the center of the Mitchell College campus, she had her work cut out for her, quite literally. Barcelo was presented the opportunity to create a sculpture that allowed the tree to tell its story—from the inside out.
As part of a larger, grant-funded community wide project for Earth Day 2013 titled “Requiem for a Tree,” the college commissioned Barcelo to create an installation, which is currently on view at the Alexey Von Schlippe Gallery in Groton.
“The tree had to be 175 to 200 years old,” Barcelo says. “And when you think about the fact that this tree was there (that long) that’s kind of awesome. And I mean that in the real sense of the word.”
Barcelo explains that nobody knew the tree had a cavity because it was so tall and was concealed by the exterior.
“The trunk still exists and the cavity is so big, I can sit down inside and have a cup of tea,” she says. “When the hurricane knocked it out, a huge chunk came out and all of a sudden, there was this big opening and it was all wormy on the inside.
“It’s an interesting story of the labor of these little worms that must have been munching their way through the cavity for years, eating out the inside of this tree,” she continues. “It’s kind of remarkable when you think about it and that it wasn’t visible—it was this gorgeous old oak tree.”
Barcelo immediately realized the enormity of the labor it would take to make a sculpture out of the tree trunk, which is 6-7 feet in diameter—and so she opted to slice the tree’s one large remaining branch vertically into sections with the help of a friend at Mystic Seaport and created a triptych, which she completed between February and the end of June.
“I spent time playing with the material and then really just did a lot of looking and spontaneously, intuitively figured out what best worked,” she says of her process.
“The labor was a lot of grinding and sanding and pegging,” she adds. “There’s no hardware involved in any of this—it’s all wood and I’m not a woodworker, per se. But when you work with materials, you understand something about space, shape, fitting, and puzzle making.”
After slicing the branch, Barcelo says that the slices took on the character of pages from a book, which was apropos, since it was to be installed in the Mitchell College Library. And, the project culminated in an actual book of photographs and writings now on display in the library. It also didn’t surprise her because books and language are recurring themes in her work, whether the medium is sculpture, installations, works on paper or digital photography.
“That is something that really fascinates me, how we communicate, the acquisition of foreign language,” she says. “It occurred to me when writing the statement for the show that I couldn’t escape that the worm-eaten (sections of the piece) look like hieroglyphics or Islamic text.
The role of memory and nostalgia
In addition to being an award-winning artist who has shown in dozens of solo and group exhibitions since the early 1990s on the East Coast and beyond, Barcelo is an art educator. She currently teaches art appreciation at the UConn Avery Point campus.
Barcelo grew up in Simsbury. Much of her early work, she says, is about memory, nostalgia, and inheritance of memory.
“I’m first generation American. My father is Cuban, my mother is Portuguese,” she says. “I spent a great deal of time researching Cuba, Cuban art, and a lot of my work has been about that experience of exile, escape, or never being able to return.”
Although this wasn’t Barcelo’s direct experience but “second hand,” she says her father’s inability to return and be with his family and that “huge loss,” made a lasting impression on her.
She says it was “enough to pursue not just this relationship with this mythical place, but also the nature of memory, and language — its fluidity, how memory operates, especially in a nostalgic sense and as it pertains to identity. So those are other concerns I’ve been working with for years in my studio.”
Getting back to the tree that her newest work derives from, Barcelo points out that memory and nostalgia is also linked into this project.
“It a life, it feels things and absorbs things,” she observes. “It doesn’t have eyes, but certainly had a life of it’s own that we don’t bother to consider. At one time it was an acorn, a sapling, it’s hard to imagine this thing six feet in diameter was once a baby.
“I think about the silent, living being quietly watching and all the change that happened. It’s outlived us all and we have the arrogance to think we have dominion over nature,” she continues. “That’s not a foreign thought to me. It’s how I look at life, how I balance things. It humbles you and makes you all that much more aware.”
Diane Barcelo’s “Requiem for a Tree” is on view through Oct. 27 in the autumn exhibition of sculpture, mixed media, and collage at the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery of Art in the Branford House Mansion on the UConn Avery Point Campus in Groton. Also on view are works by Antonio Nunez, Alan Proctor, and William B. Schockley. Gallery hours are Wed.-Sun., noon to 4 p.m.; 860-405-9052; www.averypointarts.uconn.edu