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Follow your dreams: tree of life: Laura Rinaldi Dufresne describes how Paula Smith's ceramic tree emerged.


Always considered a manifestation of divine presence, the tree of life has long been an object of veneration, as a symbol of the communication between the heavenly, earthly and lower realms.

Lucia Impelluso, Nature and Its Symbols, 2004 (16).

PAULA SMITH'S TREE OF LIFE is a majestic ceramic tree composed of 22 separate parts. It is as visionary as the medieval Rood, set against a robin's egg blue wall, with a shape suggesting several forms simultaneously: an ankh, a saguaro cactus, steer horns, even an exotic melding of a Mexican candelabra and a Jewish menorah. "All of these symbols, and more, contribute to the shape of my tree," explains Smith. "I've been dreaming about this tree for years. It was born from my collective unconscious, as Carl Jung would say, from everything I've seen on my travels, and even to images I have not seen, but dreamed. I have picturesque dreams." Paula Smith's work in general reflects the family, from her own to the universal family, and through this tree she gives expression to both the emotional as well as the biological aspects of family life. "Children draw trees--trees are some of the first forms they connect with in art. A tree is so basic, so elemental. My tree is the opposite of basic though--it is a summation of what I know. It is a family tree and a universal tree, inviting connections, meditation, even revelation."


Originally Smith conceived a more traditional Tree of Life, complete with Adam, Eve, snake and all. One of the initial inspirations for the direction her art has taken in the past few decades was an altar she encountered in San Antonio Texas. "It (the altar) glimmered in that dimly lit room, encrusted with hundreds of small half-inch Milagros of kneeling men, made of silver, tactile images of prayers and dreams. That experience led me to the 'more is more' direction my art has taken," Smith explains, "I do admire the clean lines of Zen inspired art--but in my personal aesthetic, more is more. I clear things out, only to replace them again. I am obsessed with filling the space with stuff, stuff packed with meaning, beauty, secrets, answers--everything. Academically trained artists such as myself often avoid this approach. It is so un-classical. Perhaps that is why I have always been drawn to folk art or outsider artists, who share my horror vacuii."

The tree is symmetrical, with six branches and a mandorla all connecting to the strong wide trunk, as round and supportive as a cathedral pier. The surface of this trunk is covered with 'energy lines' engraved in the clay, suggesting constant growth, change and weathering experienced by the tree and metaphorically, ourselves. Smith became fascinated with the texture and design of tree bark after a trip to Yosemite, California, and began to see bark as a living skin, full of cracks, circles and breaks, recording the tree's sufferings and joys, its growth. This inspired her to scratch the surface of the trunk with lines, which Smith identifies as van Gogh-like brush strokes, thick, full of feeling and vigour. These can be seen throughout the lower surface of her tree, between stamped images of suns and babies and hands. For Smith, all of the images represent information, signs, messages which her tree both embodies and conveys.

"Originally I thought the entire surface of the tree would look like the bark I created for the trunk--but through the building process, my ideas changed." This change can be seen in the top two thirds of the tree. Here each of the six branches reveals stamped images delving into the themes of partnering, procreation, the male and the female. On the tree's left, the side traditionally associated with the female, the bark is stamped with figures of girls, women and hands, and culminates in botanical blossoms. The allusion of this section is to creation, making, art, babies, bread--nurturing is the touchstone for Smith's view of the feminine. On the right the stamped images are of boys and men, and the lowest branch culminates in multi-coloured bottles. Phallic and mysterious, these carriers of life convey the biological urgency of sex and its power over the male. "I love the idea of the bottle tree, which was born in the Deep South in the US. People hang blue bottles from the branches of a dead cedar tree for protection, to keep away evil." The blue bottles on her tree are also protective, to ward off the evil that can slither in and destroy family life--addictions, infidelity, loss of love. Smith hung the lower four branches with alternating pears and apples, traditional symbols of fertility. The two lowest branches meet at the trunk where a valentine heart-rattle lies in a tear-drop shaped nest. This niche contains the heart of the tree, and of the family and its beginnings through romantic love, kisses and the tentative first steps of the mating dance.


Smith also associates the heart with the divine presence, stemming from a place of feeling, containing not only the life blood, but seeds of compassion as well as love. The lower branches of the tree also contain candles, portentous of prayers whispered at the altars of every faith. The second set of branches sprout from the tiered wedding cake located above the heart. Stamped images of babies surround the cake, indicating the fecundity of sex, coupling, weddings. These are the celebrations of the family, the gatherings of joy and ceremony, of feasting and lace tablecloths belonging to departed loved ones, there in spirit. The top branches of Smith's tree investigate life's spiritual journey. Rosettes, stars, birds and planets cover the surface of the bark here. A ladder, inspired by Peruvian ladders, links the branches, offering assistance to those on this perilous journey. There is a little slit of an opening at the juncture of the top two branches in the narrowing apex of the trunk. This is a reliquary, cradling a parchment scroll inscribed with a mantra, 'follow your dreams' to be written or chanted over and over again.


The colour palette of the tree was originally planned to be all creams and the soft browns of baking, like ginger bread dough, dusted with flower. Smith likes to connect creativity with cooking, especially as a ceramic sculpture, as many of the tools used in baking and ceramics are the same. Baking, cooking, art, all have beginnings in her childhood with the iconic easy bake oven. "Even at the university when I began to study ceramics seriously I did so like a diva-chef from the food network, decked out in a red gingham apron, wielding my rolling pen at all the mud-slinging macho potters I studied with. I definitely stood out as a force for feminine. It got me into some interesting predicaments." This feminine power steered her to intensify with colour--so she added a blushing of pastels throughout.

Paula Smith hopes the tree reads soft, cake-like, a confectionery of fantastic pastries, filled with jams and custard surprises. This colour palette forces the viewer to move in closely, explore details, slow down, and make their own discoveries. By so doing, they may encounter secret messages or universal revelations, finding the snake, shells, teapots and other fanciful forms, familiar but delightfully out of context on this magical tree. The robin's egg blue wall it is mounted on creates a heightened but still sugary contrast, in keeping with the bakery theme she used throughout.

What will become of the piece after her 18-month residency at the McColl Centre of Art in Charlotte NC? "Ideally it will find a permanent home in a public space, a hospital, a chapel, a museum. Everyone who sees it connects with all or some aspects of the tree. I hope it invites viewers to stay focused on what's important in their lives. Throughout life we come to many junctures or choices where we must decide what will really make us happy. My hope is that the tree will whisper its mantra into the viewer's ear: 'Follow your dreams'.

Paula Smith noticed intricate grid-patterns emerging at various locations along the surface of her tree, reminding her of designs she's seen on mosques. Some shapes, like the mandorla, echo the vulva, the goddess shape of birth, that is almost universal, found in Buddhist, Hindu and even Christian art. Even its succulent shape suggests the agave, the milkyielding cactus believed by the indigenous peoples of Mexico to represent the life sustaining gifts of the earth goddess. "These images encouraged me to make my tree less specifically Christian, and more global, so I left out Adam and Eve. But if you look closely, you'll see the snake, hiding in the apple. It can represent temptation, wisdom, or both."

Tree of Life: follow Your Dreams

* 259 x 259 x 33 cm.

* 22 separate stacked and wall hung pieces.

* The sculpture is a coil built armature with inner supports, the clay body is a cone 6 commercial clay Riverside grit from Highwater clays.

* The relief encrusted pieces are sprig moulded forms that are covered with an off white engobe, then attached later using PC11, a white 2 part epoxy.

* the fruits were slipcast using a cone 6 porcelain then an acrylic wash of pastel colours and iridescent gold was applied.

* There are also various found objects including squares of mirror, small snail mother of pearl shells.

Laura Rinaldi Dufresne is a professor of art history at Winthrop University, South Carolina, US. Paula Smith recently finished an 18 month Affiliate Residency at the McColl Centre for Visual Art in Charlotte, NC. This offered her time and a large space in a light-filled renovated church to create, among many other things, this Tree of Life. She did this in addition to a full time teaching job at Gaston College in Dallas, NC.
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Article Details
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Author:Rinaldi, Laura
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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