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Artist Profile

Treasure trees: Paintings of heritage trees by Masumi Yamanaka

Stone pine and pine cone, Pinus pinea © Masumi Yamanaka
Stone pine and pine cone, Pinus pinea © Masumi Yamanaka

We often take trees for granted. They are omnipresent and seem to withstand most of what we and the natural environment throws at them. We therefore falsely assume that they are strong, resilient and able to withstand natural stresses, and can continue to thrive for decades, if not for centuries. This innocent preconception, however, is anything but the truth. Tress are vital, yet fragile and vulnerable and are deserving of adequate conservation.

The award winning botanical artist Masumi Yamanaka, who is also the speaker of this year’s Toshiba Lectures in Japanese Art and Science, has embarked on a journey that has taken half a decade to visually conserve each of the thirteen ‘heritage’ trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The result is a stunning and intelligent body of botanical illustration work that is now in the permanent archive of Kew’s art collection. Each illustration captures both the scientific wonders and the aesthetic glory of the outstanding historic trees, which are compiled and published with texts by Christina Harrison and Martyn Rix in Treasured Trees (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2015).

Yamanaka explains in Treasured Trees that the inspiration for the project came about when in 2006, she began working on illustrating the Indian horse chestnut tree in Kew’s arboretum. She spent days and months visiting the gardens comprised of over 14,000 trees of which thirteen are considered ‘heritage’ trees and over 250 registered as Champion Trees by the Tree Registry. Inspired, she embarked on what became a five-year project to visually preserve Kew’s heritage trees.

Styphnolobium japonicum, © Masumi Yamanaka
Styphnolobium japonicum, © Masumi Yamanaka

The resulting illustrations are not only impeccable and displays her extraordinary observation of these trees, but also a testament of her respect and admiration towards nature. Each specimen is very carefully considered. The brush work tells of her patience, endurance and love for accuracy. Even the sense of gravity is finely articulated. The Indian bean pods, for example, appear to be swaying with a gentle tug on the branch it hangs from as they grew plump after a warm summer season. The Japanese pagoda tree, one of Kew’s original trees planted in 1762, strains to keep its awkward composure. The tree is a wondrous sight with its two large tree trunks growing at a sharp horizontal direction. Held precariously in place by stilts and a brick support, it appears as though it has decided to do a grand U-turn sometime in its 250 odd years of growth with its top branches summersaulting over the trunk.

The trees are very much alive in Yamanaka’s images. Sprays of clustered flowers that scent the air are in themselves like a timeline with tiny buds at the tips still barely forming while the petals lower below the stem open to welcome in the pollinator birds and insects. She also painted a series of Indian horse chestnut fruit to provide a snap-shot moment of its development like a stop-motion animation: The fruit is first shown stripped of its outer skin to reveal a dark mysterious nut that then germinates and transitions into a young sapling.

Black locust tree Robinia pseudoacacia, © Masumi Yamanaka
Black locust tree Robinia pseudoacacia, © Masumi Yamanaka

Not all plants, however, are on a seemingly self-perpetuating life cycle. One of the heritage trees that Yamanaka was particularly drawn by is the black locust tree, which she only used a pencil to depict. Found near the Japanese pagoda tree in the Kew garden, the North American native plant was planted in 1762, together with a selection of few other trees in the then new arboretum for Princess Augusta. Over the decades, however, the tree has been on a decline. In fact, much of it is in a very vulnerable state despite attempts to rejuvenate the tree. While Yamanaka laments that it was one of the most challenging tree to draw, she nonetheless is in awe of it. ‘In spite of its age, this tree continues to flower with beautiful scented blossoms every year. However, because of its age and condition, in all probability, it will not survive many more years.’

Botanical art focuses on the objective and scientific approach to depicting plant specimens while conveying the “life”-ness of the specimen. Yamanaka’s approach to creating her work is by first having a heart-to-heart “chat” with the plant.

“I feel that it is important to ‘converse’ with the plants. I have been speciaiising in tree illustrations for many years and when I stand before trees that have lived for hundreds of years, I feel the urge to touch them and imagine the events in history that they have witnessed. When I find a tree that I am particularly drawn to, I go up to it and ask if it is all right to take a little branch sample (even though they have no way of objecting).”

Perhaps it is Yamanaka’s Japanese cultural background, which lends itself to embrace the notion of spirituality being present in nature, what compels her to approach her subjects with respect. “We need plants to sustain our eco system. If the duty of botanical artists is to depict them in a scientifically accurate yet beautiful way, we must learn not only to decipher the structure, physiognomy and the function of the plants, but match that with a sense of pure reverence. Many regard botanical art as a cross between ‘science’ and ‘art’, but I feel that it is an exploration between ‘science’ and ‘spirituality’.”

Yamanaka builds relationships with her specimens that span for years. “Trees, unlike annuals, have a certain biorhythm that is affected by the natural environment and seasonal cycle to determine when to flower and fruit, for example. A single tree does not necessarily flower year after year. In fact, the Taiwanese paulownia (Paulownia kawakamii) in Kew that I drew flowered spectacularly and bore ample fruits one year, but the following year, it produced not a single blossom. One of Kew’s heritage trees, the Turner oak (Quercus turneii), which lives to be about 200 years old, was notorious for producing little, if any, acorns. I asked the oak ‘I’d like you to be my model, so would you mind bearing some acorns this year?’ with my hand gently pressed to its trunk. And miraculously, that autumn, the oak produced them in abundance. In general, however, plants are not particularly that accommodating towards the botanical artists’ whims and desires, so it is only natural that we work around their rhythm, even if it takes years to complete a piece.”

Masumi in her studio
Masumi in her studio

This isn’t to give the impression that she spends her time entirely outdoors. To maintain consistency in the interpretation of the colors and depict key details of the plants, she brings in the specimens and works for most part in Kew’s art studio. “Kew’s artist room has a very large North facing window to avoid any direct sunlight streaming in. This evenly lit space provides an ideal environment for the artists. However, we do use a few tricks to keep the specimens to retain certain looks. For example, in the warm summer months, we put specimens in ice water during the day and store them during the night in the refrigerator, or at times cover them with a bag to retain their freshness. When I am illustrating flower buds, I do feel sorry for the plant, but I carefully wrap some string around them to prevent them from opening. ‘

People often asked Yamanaka why she was so incessant on painting trees. Her courteous half-joking reply was “because the trees asked me to [do so].” A premonition or not, it was a prescient remark. Britain experienced a particularly catastrophic storm on the night of 16 October 1987. With winds reaching to 100 mph, it caused havoc and took down some 15 million trees in its wake with many landing onto rail lines and roads. Trees in the Kew were also damaged. The Garden lost 700 specimens of trees, which took nearly three years to clear up and called for a more concerted effort to protect Britain’s “treescape”. Yamanaka has witnessed severe storms since then that continued to pose grave threats. At times, she has seen a once magnificent gift of nature rendered by the storm into a vulnerable relic. “The devastation affected me deeply, and my only consolation was that I had captured these beautifully-shaped trees before they were damaged,’ she notes.

Yamanaka recently co-curated the exhibition Flora Japonica, which is now on at the Kew Garden until 5 March 2016. For more information, please visit The Kew Garden website.

Kaz Morohashi
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer

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