Susan Squires Reflects on the Memory of Trees
There’s a spirituality in nature that is simply felt. There’s no real defining this feeling, it just is. Susan Squires taps into this mindful awareness in her current exhibition, Nature Studies, at the Shaker Lakes Nature Center. On view through Monday, March 27, the show consists largely of small works of encaustic on wood slabs. The works focus on what is inherently present, the imperfections of growth, or the striations of wood grain. Squires has let the works speak for themselves, enhancing the natural qualities and has been careful to not overwork the surfaces, “I want to respond to what’s there, and augment it and make it more understandable to people.” The works draw a fine balance between revealing and obscuring, of leaving raw and layering. It is almost as if two artists’ hands are present – Squires’ hand and the hand of nature itself.
Encaustic techniques were first developed in the ancient world, often being used for funerary masks. At the same time, the idea of sacred geometry was being developed. Squires’ magnetism towards these parallel themes is present in her work. Squires stated, “I’m really interested in past ways of thinking and how the ancients were responding and how that now affects us after so long a time.” She seeks out ways in which we have adapted past thinking and how theories and beliefs from ancient times are still applied to contemporary life. Pythagoras claimed that numbers themselves were sacred, and while Squires acknowledges struggling with math in her youth, geometry gave her a way to depict numbers in a visually structured language.
Squires’ works often incorporate linear geometric configurations, as in Landscape/Tree Slice, recalling those of the Tree of Life or mandalas. These structures help to contain the organic, a duality that the artist strives to express. In doing so, Squires creates an intimate work that balances the emotional and the intellectual, the material and immaterial. She’s also able to create a sacred space, a chance for the viewer to pause and enter the work psychically, “What I always wanted to do was have a layered statement. I wanted to have surface and depth at the same time.” References to the landscape through a horizon line and the blue and green color choice combined with the rings from the tree that remain visible through the translucent wax, the viewer can’t help but become mindful of the world around us. Her work can be seen as representing the intersection of the divine cosmos with that of the physical realm, an important concept in sacred geometry.
“Nature is something that feeds me… My impressions are mostly that of growth. How things grow and die,” Squires explains. Small Tree Wall Sculptures groups three works that emphasize this interest through the use of a dried fallen leaf, a piece of bark shed from its tree, and a sliced piece of branch. Each were once part of a living organism, each part grew as part of a whole and then died and fell to the ground where it would normally decay and become sustenance for new growth. “The whole cycle of nature, I find that to be incorporated in my abstractions;” through suspending these partially broken down elements in wax, Squires points to the connections between the ephemeral and the eternal.
Squires’ enhancements of the natural formation in the trees brought to mind the passage of time and how events are recorded in their rings. Trees become a conduit, connecting the present with the past. Rather than concealing the ring formations, Squires enhances the natural growth patterns in works like Meadow and By the Pond. The ethereal reflection on the memory of a tree brought to mind Kim Novak’s character pointing to a cut cross-section of a Sequoia in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you…” In Meadow, the spiral form suggests the Golden Ratio and moves the eye in a circular motion through the piece. The enhanced spots within the wood help slow the viewing down. For a smaller work, the piece makes us very much aware of the passage of time as our gaze speeds up and slows down.
By the Pond, on the other hand, creates a focal point through the use of vibrant yellow and blue halos bringing our focus directly to the interior rings. The effect keeps us fixated on the center as a contemplation point. The titles Squires uses in these works ask us to think about locations where these trees may have lived, painting a mental landscape in our minds, transporting us to meditative spaces in which we can center ourselves.
Squires uses encaustic to contain a natural element in several of the works, drawing parallels to sacred reliquaries. In Honoring the Stone I, she surrounds a small stone with a wood box set in wax that has been rendered and enlarged, carefully recreating the detailed patterning. The interior of the box is left as natural wax, to emphasize and elevate the importance of stone. This allows the viewer to examine the stone closer and ponder it’s natural beauty. It’s a level of consciousness we can then take with us and teaches us to look closely at objects often taken for granted or seen as mundane.
While each of the works in the exhibition bring our attention to the diverse formations and beauty of the natural world, Tree Study/Wax/Round succeeds in centering the viewer’s attention to an unaltered slice of a branch and an examination of the raw inspiration Squires takes from her materials. Set centered in a disk of encaustic, she puts all the spiritual energy into the branch. The encaustic, with a thin yellow outer rim acts as a halo one would find in medieval religious paintings. It both contains and radiates the reverence which squires attributes to nature.
Squires’ intimate works, set in the second story gallery of the nature center, with over-sized windows looking on the expansive essence of nature permit the viewer meditative moments. Squires allows us to meditate on connections with our environment in bite size morsels that bring deeper meaning when we gaze at our surroundings. The viewer can then wander the hiking paths and take a moment to fin their own relation with nature. “The idea of trees being beings and that they feed us as well as each other. It’s a whole network of interconnectedness. How people and nature are intertwined. You get that satisfaction when you’re out walking. I want to express it and do it in such a way that it’s a spiritual experience.” Through her work in this exhibition, and at large, Squires reminds us that the world around us is truly sacred.
Christopher L. Richards is an independent curator and consignment director at Aspire Auctions.