The Paris Review | Leanne Shapton | November 29, 2010
LEANNE SHAPTON writes about Canadian trees and identity in The Paris Review
As a Canadian, the shapes of leaves are part of my subconscious; learning to draw the maple leaf on our flag was like learning to ice skate. I feel a loyalty to Canada. I love how it is somehow still possible to be a speck in a vast landscape—the matter-of-fact feeling that something out there is bigger, greater (which probably contributes to what is taken for national humility and manners). I like that Canadian artists have always grappled with the idea of “north.” I love the mounds of beautiful Precambrian rock that swell up all over southern Ontario.
When I’m in Toronto, I always drop in at the Monkey’s Paw Bookstore. Stephen Fowler, the owner, has an incredible eye. (I recently came back with a book of transcribed seance sessions, a history of women in uniform, a treatise on baking, and a book of party games for adults.) He had this book called the Native Trees of Canada displayed on a table. I flipped through it, and I immediately knew I needed to buy it. It was a government volume: unmediated and strictly informational. It was filled with very sterile, black and white pictures of leaves, placed on a grid for scale. While looking at them, I had vivid memories of picking at maple seeds on my front lawn, of wet leaves stuck to my shoes, of fallen leaves blowing through the screen door. I knew I wanted to paint them.
I love that trees are so big. We pick at them and abuse them and carve them up. We are like Lilliputians at the shins of giants; they are witnesses to our smaller actions. They remind me of the Oscar Wilde story “The Happy Prince,” in which a statue gives the ruby in his sword hilt, his sapphire eyes, and a gold leaf to a swallow to distribute to the poor, leaving the statue blind and shabby. The humans in the story are oblivious to the his benevolence. Maybe this sounds bananas or pretentious (or both), but I think trees maintain their dignity despite our ingratitude; they emanate the same kind of generosity that Wilde’s statue does.
My favorite tree is the Manitoba Maple. I like maple-flavored anything, too. Every Christmas, I try to make my boyfriend a book of paintings. He doesn’t understand my patriotic streak, so I decided to give him a version of the Native Trees of Canada. (He’d also been reading Colin Tudge’s The Tree.) I used the book I found at Stephen’s bookstore for reference and let my vague ideas of the leaf and its tree dictate the colors of the pieces. I worked with very concentrated ink and sample pots of house paint—mostly Benjamin Moore and Farrow and Ball. I like how much white is used in house paint, the colors are more naturally occurring and subtler. The paintings were done in élam scrapbooks that I use as sketchbooks; the Fabriano paper is thick and a good deep-cream color. Not every tree was included. Most were. I find cedars a little boring.
I’m working on a project now that deals with my Canadian identity, first as a competitive swimmer (wanting to swim for my country) and later as an expat. My mother immigrated to Canada when she was twenty-two, and my grandfather flew in the Royal Canadian Air Force, so I’m thinking through a range of Canadian cultures, from monarchist to suburban ethnic.