Finding the trees in the forest: Eileen Dorsey at the Cleveland Botanical Garden

Eileen Dorsey, “Breakthrough #2 (Chicago).” Oil and acrylic on canvas.

Two paintings in Eileen Dorsey’s Cleveland Botanical Garden exhibition Wooded Perspectives share the title “Breakthrough.” On one level, the word names the literal contents of those images—the spot where a hiker in thick forests suddenly steps into an open field, “breaking through” the claustrophobia of thick trees. But “breakthrough” also encapsulates an apt response to Wooded Perspectives itself. Here, Dorsey showcases her ability to create diverse experiences and moods within one genre, forested landscape painting.

The display is relatively small, comprised of nine paintings total. However, this allows viewers to take time with each piece. In the gallery, even seasoned aesthetes can fall into the rhythm of looking at a painting for just a few seconds before moving onto the next, out of an unconscious desire to see the entire show as quickly as possible. But the modest scale of Dorsey’s exhibit alleviates this subconscious pressure, while still being a wide and rich.

Eileen Dorsey, “Breakthrough #1.”

In her own words, Dorsey describes her paintings as embodying “a contemporary approach to impressionism.” They are certainly contemporary, but also hearken to the radical moods of impressionism’s early developers. Following cataract surgery, Claude Monet dutifully continued to paint what he saw, even as his vision imposed a red tint into his vision. When the familiar greens and blues of his Japanese bridge were replaced by fiery crimson, he was remaining true to his subjective impression, not how he knew his garden to be in-itself. Dorsey’s trees shine like neon, or conceal themselves in inky shadows. Greens and browns appear in her work less frequently than do lilac, cobalt blue, tangerine, peach, royal purple, sunflower yellow. In a sense, her color choices serve the truth of the scene. But, unlike Monet, Dorsey is not conveying a medically anomalous visual experience. The subjectivity she represents is, rather, emotional. Her colors emphasize the felt aliveness of a forest.

A plant’s being is less frantic and mobile than that of an animal. But it is still a life. It is still in constant, if imperceptibly slow, interaction with its surroundings. By making her trees flash with bold color, or drape themselves in black, Dorsey gives them personality. A crooked blue trunk looks like it is swaying under its own power. Leafy branches reach as if trying to tap their neighbors on the shoulder and alert them to a new sight.

Eileen Dorsey, “Yellow Background #2.” Oil reduction on canvas.

Details from “Lost in the Woods” and “Magnolia Plantation” by Eileen Dorsey. Oil on canvas.

In paintings like “Sunshine and Greenery,” “Magnolia Plantation,” and “Lost in the Woods,” foliage becomes dense enough to swallow all light, like a black hole. Regions of the canvas are given over to almost pitch shades of brown and navy blue. The forest does not seem ravenous, hostile, or secretive, but private. It has its own business, and will neither shut visitors out or lock them in. But it also will not explain itself.

But this is, at most, only half of what Dorsey allows us to do. She shows us trees in all their individuality. But she also shows us the paint out of which the trees are made. Dorsey breaks down a forest scene into its basic visual components, and invites us to see them as separate elements rather than parts of a larger, cohesive whole. (Think of inspecting how several jigsaw pieces interlock, rather than whatever picture is printed on the puzzle.) This sort of seeing is easiest when viewers look at “Yellow Background 2.” In the left side of the canvas, saplings pack together in a tight grove. Blue and white trunks overlap and underlap with leaves of green, gold, salmon, and fiery orange. Looking closely enough, the trees fade away, and we are left with splashes of pastel colors, rippling in the direction of Dorsey’s brushstrokes.

Eileen Dorsey, “Yellow Background 2.” Oil reduction on canvas.

Details from “Yellow Background #2” by Eileen Dorsey. Oil reduction on canvas.

Wooded Perspectives will run through August 4 at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. The exhibition is on display in the hallway between the visitor center, Garden Café, and Clark Hall. Dorsey will discuss her work at a reception Wednesday July 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. The gardens are located at 11030 East Boulevard. Admission is $12 for adult non-members, with discounts available for children. For more information, call 216-721-1600 or go to

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.