Conversations with trees

John Simmons shares the fruits of a conversation with good friend and artist Jenni Wallace, sparked by our 26 Trees project.

Jenni Wallace is an artist, printmaker and art therapist. She’s also been a friend since our children went to school together many years ago in north London. So when I met up with her a few months ago for a cup of coffee in the Royal Academy, I told her about the latest 26 project about trees. It so happened that, as I’ve been writing a novel about visual artists, I’ve become very interested in exploring the common ground between writers and artists.

We had a good chat. We always do but this time something more happened that I hadn’t expected. Jenni became so interested in the project that she decided to contribute to it herself, not through words but through images.

Intrigued to know what she would produce I waited. After a few weeks emails from Jenni started arriving in my inbox. Her intention was originally to create something in wood that could become a simple logo for the project. Some of her work had that potential but those weren’t the most arresting images. And Jenni herself felt that a woodcut – however appropriate as a starting point for the project – might not be the right medium.

In the end, after much experimentation – “the process is the key” she told me – Jenni produced a mixed media image that builds on an a linocut of an orange tree. She had been to Spain and made the base print there. Then, returning home to the west of London, she had made rubbings of beech leaves onto Japanese paper. She printed these and added them to the linocut tree until they formed a beautiful, balanced image. How many leaves? 26, of course.

So this became the image you see, now reproduced on a small-edition card that Jenni had printed for 26 members to buy as a wonderful memento of the project – and, as we’ve been discovering about trees, useful as well as beautiful. I’ve now got cards that I can send people for many different occasions.

“I like trees,” Jenni told me. “My father worked at the Forestry Commission and I’ve always been drawn to the natural world.” Her work has taken her around the world as an artist and a therapist. “Art therapy training gave me the means to walk into any situation. I’ve worked in many universities (London Institute, Kingston, University of the Creative Arts among others) and in associations for the elderly, psychiatric day centres, townships in South Africa, education programmes in America. My work has been experimental, involving painting, drawing, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture. I’m interested in the inner dialogues that happen when working with a group. You create your own reality, and it has a positive effect on creativity and mental health.”

Meanwhile in another part of the wood of words around us, another leaf stirs. Could there be a workshop where writers work with Jenni to combine visual and verbal art? We’ll keep that thought in mind.

If you would like to buy the cards made by Jenni for 26 Trees, our project in partnership with Woodland Trust, contact Rachel Marshall. We have a limited number of cards available in multiples of five only – £15 for five cards, with envelopes, plus £2 postage.

– John Simmons

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