Albion Through My Eyes / Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful
For years, I have been working at the intersection of life and art, a creative approach pioneered by my mentor and friend Linda Mary Montano; an art mother to me. This is why when I was shown the studio that Albion College had so kindly assigned to me in its Art Department, I mentioned to Jessica Merrild that I would probably not spend much time or no time at all in this space. “My studio is out in the world,” I responded to her in an e-mail conversation, before taking off to the streets of Albion to meet people and to be in community. What I did not know was that I was not alone in this pursuit of engaging the world as studio. Nor was I aware of this when I arrived in town at the beginning of September. But time would tell, as it always seems to do. The first days of the Fall in Michigan would reveal to me the master painters that I had overlooked upon moving here, and who were quietly preparing for an end of year exhibition in the open: my neighbors the trees. And who more appropriate than these beings to talk about art and the day-to-day? They truly embody arthood in ways difficult for an artist to parallel, pointing to a non-dual state where artist and art making, painter and the act of painting, and art and life are one. Just one. And one is good enough.
On a cool afternoon, I met Dan Skean by the entrance of the Whitehouse Nature Center. We had communicated electronically about my interest in taking a stroll with him to meet some of the inhabitants of the woods, and this is how art and walking merged. As with Sue Ott, whose trade revealed to me unsuspecting threads connecting peoples and places, as she sold Morel mushrooms from Michigan and the Dominican Republic, my birthplace; Dan had spent considerable time researching plants in the same Caribbean nation. In light of this, Dan and I quickly found a common language to communicate, that of trees, tropical or otherwise. This is when I brought to our dialogue the Cieba, a sacred tree in Afro-Caribbean religions, which is greatly revered and never to be harmed. It happens that this summer I journeyed from my mother’s city of Santiago de los Treinta Caballeros to visit one of these beings in the nearby countryside. The majestic Ceiba I am describing stands at 1000 plus years old, an elder, and it has obviously been witness to events of such magnitude as the European colonization of the Americas. A souvenir of this visit consists of a photograph in which I am hugging its massive body, while I resemble a miniscule elf. My offering to this entity took the shape of several golden peso coins that I hid in the pleats of its full skirt-like trunk before leaving its healing presence.
At the Nature Center in Albion I encountered Bur Oaks, American Chestnuts, and some Sassafras trees of such height I have never seen anywhere else. There was also Goldenrod, which is said to be of help to those suffering from urinary track infections, allergies, and to treat skin problems related to burns. Somewhere along the route, Dan made mention of the presence of nonnative species. His approach and that of the Nature Center is to control them with the balance tipped to natives, since it is often not feasible to eliminate all invasives. I spotted the orange remains of Jack-in-the-Pulpit berries, while my host pointed to the Asian Bittersweet, a plant bearing rather attractive red seeds, but which is over prevalent in the area. Towards the end of our walk, Dan disclosed that Albion is a city of Maples, and that made me recall Sherry Grice’s visit to my home on Cass St., when she quoted the Chinese proverb “One generation plants the trees, another gets the shade.” I looked up and saw that that was true. By the time Dan and I parted I noticed the effects on my body of the variety of greens we were regaled with visually along the trail, and silently wondered if the blood in my cardiovascular system had transmuted into chlorophyll. I kept this thought to myself.
Trees may not talk in a language most of us can easily understand, but they do communicate with one another and are said to form family bonds in the forest. I am therefore curious about the relationships we forge with them and the stories we both share. Ruth Schmitter agreed to meet at the Bobbitt Visual Art Center, and soon after listening to her about the skunk that she raised years ago, we went out on a walk during which she introduced me to some of the trees on campus. She told me how the Ginkgo, that is now taken for granted in many U.S. cities, was once thought to be extinct. I followed Ruth as she went through the marked crosswalks that led us to some of the College’s paths, not revealing to her that I was in fact a city jaywalker. We made a stop at a Dawn Redwood planted in memory of Srinivasu Meka, a student in her department who died in a car accident. A moment of silence to honor the departed. A moment of quiet to admire the beauty of the tree.
Trees are master painters and oracles who remind us of our impermanence. This is because they can practice death and rebirth year after year, even up to millennia. I relate Nature’s wisdom to Octavia Elaine Crawford Turner’s manifesto entitled What Are Your Final Wishes? In it, Octavia narrates how she and her brother found her mother’s wishes for her funeral inside the pages of a Bible. Trees and paper. Pages and leaves. Ink and Chlorophyll. “Please share them with someone today. You have earned this right. Even if you choose the strategy selected by my mother by placing your list where you know it will be found, at least your wishes will be made known to those who love and care about you.” After reading Octavia’s document I made the decision not to wait until my day comes, and so I put on my coat and cap and trekked to Rieger Park to visit what the Nelsons think might be the biggest Plane tree in Michigan. I planted myself in front of it to be one with its colors. Just one. And one was Awesome.