January 19, 2019

oak in birch panel
Hay bales under an oak in Paso Robles, off Highway 46 (oil on birch panel, 2 of 2)

I have frequently painted and written about the beautiful oak trees we have here in the golden state of California. And this great mature oak, with glowing golden hay bales, was a perfect specimen to paint. The companion left birch panel does not feature one majestic oak, but rather golden hay bales in the foreground that lead to a sloping hillside of oaks in the background. For that August 2017 post I focused on the purpose of under painting, and how it can be used to enhance the final colors that are carefully and strategically layered on top. I think it gives the final work a very romantic feel, and I quite like the affect.

For this piece of art, and the story that goes with it, I am focusing on the front and center subject matter—the lone oak tree. When I came upon this bucolic scene, I knew the oak deserved a place all its own. I remember thinking that I loved that the farmer who planted the hay had left the tree there. Maybe he or she thought it a great place to get out of the sun and sit up against the giant trunk to eat lunch on a hot day. When adding the top layer of tree texture I emphasized the leaves, branches and trunk with individual pigment-laden brush strokes. And because the hard birch surface does not absorb the paint, as it would with a stretched canvas surface, the thick blobs of pigment actually adds a real three-dimensional quality to all parts of the tree. I quite like that affect. When I spotted the oak diptych on my wall the other day, I knew I wanted to write about some of my many ramblings and sightings of such amazing trees. So, this week’s featured oak will be a jumping off point for my many California rambles on roads and hills, looking for single specimen trees, clumps and rows of trees, as well as drifts and masses on whole hillsides.

I often go rambling through the various neighborhoods and country sides I live in, looking at the sky and the trees. When my son was little I would stop and take a photo of a tree, or a landscape full of trees. Then I would paint it later when he was asleep or otherwise occupied. Lately I have been rambling through various neighborhoods on foot. I don’t just look for oaks, a truly favorite of mine, but I look at all kinds of trees. I like to notice singular redwoods, oaks, eucalyptus and palms. But I am also interested in the general arrangement of layers and clumps of trees—some intentionally planted and some just there because of some natural force. If you walk in California neighborhoods with houses from the 40s, 50s and 60s you will often see row upon row of houses that have the same tree planted in front. There was a time that builders planted a tree in front of each new house. So, by now, there are some older neighborhoods with glorious single trees out by the curb. Unfortunately, for some varieties that were planted have roots that have buckled the concrete sidewalks beside them. That happened to my aunt and uncle’s house in Long Beach. Their house was built in the 1920s and their front sidewalk has had to be replaced several times because of the roots of the jacaranda that was planted in the 30s. FYI—the jacaranda is actually a very common SoCal tree and it has lovely purple blossoms in the spring. Google it and you will see.

In a previous post I described rows of palm trees, planted in the 1930s, which can be found on either side of several streets in Glendale. Another nearby area with lots of mature trees is a neighborhood of craftsman style houses in Pasadena. It’s called Bungalow Heaven, and most of those houses have oak trees on their lots, with many of them out front. It is quite lovely to look up those blocks and see rows of such stately trees. It is also not uncommon to see a huge oak in the courtyard of a Spanish Revival house in the Glendale hills. That usually means the house was built around the tree. It’s crazy to imagine that a tree would be so integral to the design and placement of house, right?

Driving along 101 you would not be able to help seeing rows and clumps of mature trees at the edge of cultivated fields. Sometimes it looks like there had once been a house at the end of the row of trees, but no more. It actually makes me kind of sad to think that there is no one there to enjoy the shade and beauty. There’s also a stretch of the 101 where huge eucalyptus trees have been planted as wind breaks along the road and between the various fields. Several years ago the trees got some kind of blight and started dying. However, soon those huge trees started sending up new growth and are still there—kind of lumpy and forever changed, but still there. Actually, I often think the trees I see are way more interesting than the nearby houses. This puts me in mind of a book I have been reading that has a section in a chapter called “Time, Order and the Garden.” It’s kind of a geeky, yet wonderful, gardening book called, “Life in the Garden,” by Penelope Lively. In the TOG section she speaks so lovingly about trees it almost comes across as prose. She writes that we count on them to help us pass the time in meaningful ways, rather than keeping track of time passing with a building or structure. I mean, can you tell how old a house is by counting its rings? And the philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” only make sense if you are talking about a tree, rather than a house or castle. Right?

Rockhaven Oaks

Some of my recent neighborhood ramblings on my way to Montrose have taken me past a square block of old houses and glorious mature old oak trees. It’s called Rockhaven. I took a tour of the place several months ago now and learned that it had been a home for women with mental illness. It was started in 1923 and was developed as a place for women to be treated in a dignified way in a homelike setting. In it’s heyday it even had a proper gardener that transformed it into a beautiful haven, with the lovely oak trees all around. Marilyn Monroe’s mother lived there in the late 50s and early 60s and was actually living there when Ms. Monroe died in 1962. Billie Burke, Glinda the good witch in the Wizard of Oz, also lived there for a time. (Google it to learn more.) Today, all of the houses, save one bungalow, are in varying states of disrepair. But the oaks still stand tall all around. This house is occupied by two people, one of them an avid gardener. They are now the caretakers of this property and have a small and ever expanding garden around their house and trees. Every time I walk past the place I look to see if anyone has repaired any of the roofs on the houses scattered around. It’s sad to see that nothing is being done to resurrect those houses. But I think it would truly be sad if the oaks were not still hanging around, keeping track of the seasons of sun and rain that pass over the sky above them year after year.

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