The Tree of Knowledge

I was painting in Florida recently, as part of the ‘Forgotten Coast paint out’. We had a whole week to paint the people and places along a 100 miles of beautiful coast line – it was fabulous! And something lovely happened…

Looking for a painting location in Port St Joe, I drove around a predominantly African-American neighbourhood, there were great subjects to paint, old wooden houses in different colours, and some interesting characters too. I stopped by a derelict old house and spoke with the neighbours. I wanted to paint, they seemed ok about me being there, so I set up. As I worked, I became aware of a disturbance a few yards down the road, I got scared, there was a fight and a lot of shouting. Soon a police car arrived and then an ambulance. Was it safe to paint here? Should I leave? I was working right bedside my car and could pack up fast if I needed to, but actually, everyone I had spoken to had been friendly to me, so I kept on painting. I finished the piece and left.

 "Standing on bricks" 9 x 12" Oil on board

"Standing on bricks" 9 x 12" Oil on board

As I drove away, I spotted a group of people sitting in the shade of a tree, their shape against the brightly lit concrete made a great silhouette – and a great story, a simple image that spoke of culture and community. It took me another two days to find the courage to stop and speak to them; painting houses is one thing, but painting a gang of men is quite another! What if I messed it up and they got offended? When I did finally decide to go back, I drove slowly past them, they waved and smiled and called out to me, so I parked a few yards up the road and watched them in my mirror for a moment. Did I feel brave enough to get out of the car and say hello? I did. And so, I met Chuck, and 5 of his friends. I asked if they would allow me to take a few photos, to see if I might make a painting of them. They were lovely, so warm and welcoming, they really liked the idea of being painted, and I found the perfect viewpoint across the street, in the shade of a disused shop.

 Chuck and friends chatting as I paint

Chuck and friends chatting as I paint

Unsure how long the guys would stay, I had to work backwards, starting with the detail of the figures and leaving the background until later (instead of my usual approach; starting with large, rough shapes and slowly working towards the detail). With a quick plan for the design in my sketchbook I started to paint the figure to the right of the group, then worked across the group one at a time, linking the figures together with their shadows or clothes to make one solid dark shape. There was an empty chair to the right of the group, it’s shadow joined up with the other shapes and it seemed somehow to complete the picture, so I made sure I left a space for it on the edge of the canvas. As I painted, the guys took turns to come over and watch me, they were chatty and interested, they knew of the ‘paint out’ but hadn’t really been involved before, now they were intrigued. They kept calling out to each other as I painted them “Hey Leon, she just painted your legs!” this was a bad idea, it inevitably prompted Leon, (or whoever I was trying to paint at that moment) to cross the street to see themselves on the canvas – except they weren’t on there yet, because I’d only painted their legs before they moved! It got difficult, but it added to the fun, it was starting to feel like a party on the street corner, more people gathered, more chatting and questions. I worked fast to catch people when they weren’t looking.

 Detail of the group of figures

Detail of the group of figures

Soon a lady arrived, she sat on the edge of the table and joined in the talk under the tree, there was a great atmosphere, a lot of joking and laughter. Then she crossed the road and asked why I hadn’t included her in the picture. I tried to explain that she hadn’t been there when I made the initial plan, but it was futile, it was clear that Elitha was part of the group, so she had to be in the painting. Then another guy arrived and he too had to be included– and so the painting evolved, sort of by accident, documenting the folks that came and went. After a while, I asked them to help me to think of a title for the piece. Straight away someone said, well you have to call it “Jus hangin’ under the tree of knowledge” -  what a great title! They explained that the tree had been named by Dave, a great local character who thought of names for everything. Then they told me Dave had passed away unexpectedly, a couple of weeks ago. They asked me to title the painting in his memory- what a lovely idea, I felt honoured. As I looked again at the painting, I saw the empty chair on the right.
“So that’s Dave’s chair then?”  
“Yes.”

Eventually, the painting was done, it was nearly dark and I was meant to be painting a nocturn session at the lighthouse around the corner so I had to rush off. That night I received a message via my website:

This is Elitha. Thank you for capturing us. It was a beautiful experience.

At the end of the week we put our finished artworks in the gala exhibition. On Saturday evening, I was just leaving when somebody stopped me; “There’s some people here to meet you”. I returned to my display and found two ladies looking at my paintings. Their names were Sedra and Whitney Barnes; Dave’s widow and one of his twin daughters, they had heard about my painting and wanted to see it. They showed me a picture of Dave, we talked about him and how his memory would live on, in the tree and in the painting. Sedra, Whitney and I signed a dedication on the back of the artwork, in memory of David Lee Barnes. Then we handed the painting to Susan, a collector who had chosen to buy the painting after she heard its story.  

 "Jus' hangin' under the tree of knowledge" 12 x 16" Oil on board

"Jus' hangin' under the tree of knowledge" 12 x 16" Oil on board

 Whitney, me and Sedra with the painting

Whitney, me and Sedra with the painting