Cheryl Richey is an artist and former social worker in Seattle, Washington.
What were your initial experiences with art?
I was always a creative thinker and enjoyed making things out of scrap, found objects. I also had an eye for design and used to rearrange furniture (and still do) in rooms that we stayed in/rented. I took art classes and used to draw ordinary things like my stapler, potted plant, what I saw. I also have a visual memory and can still lay out the floor plan of the house in LA that I grew up in. I have an active dream life and remember many of my dream segments. I think all of these elements combine to promote my art.
You have a deep, professional background in social work. Does this influence your approach to image-making?
A very interesting question. Because I am an abstract expressionist and focus on experimentation and “making sense of nonsense” I don’t immediately find a connection. My academic training and career emphasized social science, developing and evaluating interventions that are effective in helping people, making good decisions based on evidence. All of this is now considered “best practices” in service delivery. I don’t want to or like to include people in my work. I don’t know how to understand this. In a few instances, human forms began to materialize and I decided that they needed to be included so I went with it – I allowed them to be a part of my composition. In one case, “Winter Slumber”, the forms began to emerge (figures resting/sleeping next to/within a dormant tree) and I urged them forward.
Perhaps the clearest connection is that my commitment to social justice also attaches to my environmental perspectives, including my focus on trees and their importance in a balanced ecology. I have a vivid memory of an image I saw (maybe in the NY Times or National Geographic magazine) where a thin African women was up in the last, remaining, leaf ness tree hacking away at this lone survivor for what was likely much needed fuel for cooking. This was the poster child for environmental injustice.
Your work has an abstract but clearly nature-based quality - what has made trees the right subject?
I have been writing haiku poetry since the 1980’s. I found that tree imagery became a ripe metaphor for many of these poems. Later, wanting to honor the spirits of the trees cut down in the N1 Parking lot, which I used daily, to make room for the new law school on the University of Washington campus. Many established trees in the N1 parking lot were destroyed, a huge arboreal massacre of sickening proportions.
Other reasons might be:
- Tree spirits and tree totems (very connected to the Pacific North West coastal tribes, finding the spirit or totem in a log letting the spirit within influence the carver/artist).
- Global warming and the simple truth about how trees influence weather, oxygen replenishment.
- Reading David Suzuki’s book TREE (about an old Douglas Fir on an island in Canada) was also incredibly accessible, instructive, and motivating. A “must read” for every tree lover and environmental activist.
Please tell us about the "30 Tree Truths":
I collaborated with the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences on my last show. Doctoral and masters students submitted cutting edge “facts” about trees and forests and I culled 30 from this list and posted alongside my exhibition, Arbor Intelligence. Some of these are widely known (e.g., "trees are the lungs of the earth"), but other “truths” were more esoteric and interesting, such as:
- Trees are communal and share sun and water resources via their root systems.
- Chlorophyll and hemoglobin are similar in structure with only one atom difference between them: chlorophyll’s one magnesium atom enables plants to capture light, whereas hemoglobin’s one iron atom allows blood to capture oxygen.
- Lodgepole pine cones can wait 50 years for fire to open the cones and release the seeds.
- Rain forests lift and transpire huge amounts of water every day creating great rivers of mist that flow across the continent. This water condenses and falls as rain.
- Bristlecone pine trees regularly keep their needles for 20 to 30 years, and occasionally as long as 45 years.
- The only living tissues of a tree are its foliage, buds and inner bark—which usually make up less than 1 percent of a tree's biomass.
- In a forest under attack by a pest or pathogen, you may actually count more trees—lots of young ones—than before the outbreak, because some species make a last-ditch effort to reproduce before death.
- Dead trees are important for biodiversity. They are a source of food and shelter for insects, fungi, spiders, and many bird species as well as small mammals, snakes, lizards, and bats. Dead trees are rich with life, and we should celebrate them, too!
- Pyrophytes are plants, including trees (some species of pine, oak, eucalypts, and giant sequoias) that have adapted to tolerate fire. In some species, fire aides them in competing with less fire-resistant plants for space and nutrients.
What do you do to take care of your environment?
Stewardship of the individuals that I care for (trees, plants, rescues – Western Red Cedar); donating money regularly to environmental groups, the National Park Foundation; partnering with local, environmental nonprofits for my art shows to bring people to my shows and donating a percentage of sales to these groups. I’m also an avid recycler, which is made easy in Seattle. I make an effort to speak out on the connections among such issues as poverty, overpopulation, greed, deforestation, etc. I pick my battles and try hard to not alienate, but rather to educate, engender respect and affection for…trees.