The story of a painting

Growing up, there was an old-growth Oak tree on the family farm. “Old-growth” based on the width and it’s phenomenal height. As we all know, most of the native woods were destroyed across America for nothing else than the sake of conquest. Some were spared, this apparently being one of them. I first took umbrage to recreate the experience of this tree with the oil on canvas named “Oak” (2002). It was painted from a detailed photograph of this tree that was a central part of my visual and natural/physical symbol of my youth. I believe that we all have some monumental visual reference to our upbringings; for those who grew up in New York City it may have been Central Park, for those out west it may have been the Grand Canyon, etc. For me it was this tree.

Recently the tree came down. The entire thing — naturally by the forces of spring storms, weight and a quarter millennium of time. I wasn’t hurt when I got the news. If it had been mutilated or attacked with a human machine, yes, but knowing this being had stood and provided an ecosystem in and of itself for along as it did, I was not surprised. Over a quarter-millennium of weight had just been lifted. Brief back story: One memory I have as a child he tree was hit by lightning and the south-facing half of it came down. This opening of the trunk led to other animals and insects to habitat and open its core. For over 25 years different species moved in; bees created combs deep in its chest, snakes created dark elevated luxury dens, raccoons and others continued to open and hollow its core, taking advantage of its position height and immovable rooting. The tree showed no external signs of decay: no dead branches, leaves even at the top were greening. It just gave out one day from its hollow center.

I wanted to create a still frame of its youth — something from memory and from the hundreds of images I took of it over the years from studying its posture, being fascinated by its ambitious lines, and recording the sounds from underneath its canopy. The tree, a few hours west of the Continental Divide, had grown and stood before any major event that took place near the ground that it grew on; everything from the mass deforestation to make way for industrialized farming, to the Civil War sites close to its roots, to the drafting of the American Constitution itself. It pre-dated all of this, representing an ancestral post free of being tethered to any domestic, planted narrative. This tree was central to the inspiration of the “Ancestor” recordings as the titles and imagination minded the worlds that this tree stood against. I wanted the choice of tone to represent tone of the turbulent generations that it grew in contrast to.

Title: The Young Oak

Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 30″ x 24″

Created: 2019

by: Thomas Watkiss

This work was made as part of a fundraiser portfolio through Patreon and GoFundMe supporters get exclusive content related to this work. Reserves can be made by contacting

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