The National Post examines the inspiration and process behind LEANNE SHAPTON’s THE NATIVE TREES

Turning over a new leaf

The National Post    |    Mark Medley     |    November 8, 2010

Sometime in the next few weeks the last leaves will fall from the trees, and the branches will remain bare until the spring. Summer remains eternal, however, in Leanne Shapton's new book, The Native Trees of Canada, a field guide-cum-art project that explores the country's majestic foliage.

Late last year, Shapton was browsing the shelves of The Monkey's Paw, a bookstore in Toronto's west end known for stocking a peculiar assortment of oddities and ends, when she came across a well-worn copy of The Native Trees of Canada, Bulletin No. 61, Fifth Edition. Originally published in 1956 by the forestry branch of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, this black-and-white manual, which helps amateur arborists to identify different trees, had become, more than 50 years later, a curiosity for sale in a second-hand bookshop. Shapton knew she had to buy it.

When she returned to New York, Shapton began to paint her own interpretation of the trees in her sketchbook, which she then presented to her boyfriend as a Christmas present. Essentially, Drawn & Quarterly has reproduced Shapton's sketchbook, right down to the paint splotches and manufacturer's imprint on the back. While the former National Post editor's previous book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Leonore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, is being turned into a film, the odds are this one will be more difficult to adapt.

A collection of 84 illustrations of, as the title suggests, the native trees of Canada, the book is part mimicry, part make-believe. These trees all exist, but Shapton has filtered and enhanced them through her memory. It's as if you are gazing at trees as they appear in Shapton's dreams.

"I think of the Manitoba Maple leaves as being a dark red, when I don't thinks it's actually true at all," she explains. "You colourize these memories based on, I don't know, some weird form of synesthesia, or memories that you have but don't have." She never ventured out into the woods for field research. "I really didn't look at any colour reference of these actual trees. I just sort of went, 'Black Walnut? Orange!' and just had far more emotional response. Sometimes it was suggested by the names, but often I worked against that."

She imagines a jack pine against a brilliant yellow sky, a ghost-like black oak, and a technicolour willow. Often, her work seems like a Rorschach test: Everyone will see something different in the leaves.

Despite the subject matter, Shapton insists the book hides no particular environmental message.

"In drawing trees and plants, if it conveys a certain kind of love I have, then that's my statement. But this is a very true and honest and unpolitical love of nature."

The Native Trees of Canada by Leanne Shapton is published by Drawn and Quarterly ($19.95).

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