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Dreaming My Ancestors
The Blood of a Tree

2007, eucalyptus sap and beads on linen, 17 x 24.5”, by Jenny Badger Sultan

Painting by Jenny Badger Sultan:'Dreaming my Ancestors'. Click to enlarge.

This art work comes from an interaction with the flowering eucalptus tree which we planted over 20 years ago on the sidewalk outside our house in San Francisco. In Fall, 2004, we had the tree pruned. It was a major pruning, of both the upper branches and the roots since it had started to push up the sidewalk. A few months later, we noticed that deep red sap was flowing down the trunk from several openings. This had never happened before and we were concerned and consulted several tree experts. The consensus was that this might be a response to stress (the pruning) but was not necessarily a danger to the tree.

I became very interested in the sap--it was so beautiful! When dry, it crystallized and looked like garnets. I wondered whether Australian Aborigines had used the sap as a glue. I tried that but found that it didn’t do well at bonding two things together. A neighbor said he’d found on the internet that the Aborigines had used it as a disinfectant.

We were away for the month of September 2006. When we returned, I saw that someone had been peeling bark off the tree. Street trees often get rough treatment from passersby and I wanted to prevent more damage so I put a canvas band around the trunk saying “Please do not harm this tree.” Soon I saw red sap dripping down over the band. This gave me the idea to sew a linen hand towel that was a family heirloom to the band. In a few weeks, with rain, the cloth had received a lot of color. I took it off and put another in its place.

I rinsed and ironed the first cloth and spent time gazing at it. Faces began to be suggested in the accidental configurations of the red/brown sap. I ground up some of the crystallized sap I had collected and mixed it with alcohol and water to make a solution that I could paint with. I developed the images with the sap solution. It felt as if I was uncovering the faces of my ancestors, not in a literal sense, but more in a spiritual sense. My father, who was born in 1896, grew up in Australia, and I have always felt a very strong bond with that continent, its plants, people and animals, though I’ve never been there. I added some beading to the cloth as an accent.

The second piece of linen had received some beautiful color and then one day I saw that someone had slit the canvas band with a knife or razor almost all the way through, so I removed the whole thing from the tree. I felt very angry at this vandalism, but instead of putting up an angry statement, I decided to make another protective band, this time with the eyes of Buddha and the Egyptian udjat eyes. I looked at the second cloth for a long time before I saw what appeared: a large woman’s face with a headdress or crown of plants and trees. Then I again used a solution of the sap to bring out the image, and added beads and embroidery thread in the crown. A piece of old family lace seemed to complete the feeling. I called that piece Gaia Dreaming.

I have used the sap in other art pieces as well, and have even adhered the sap crystals onto the surface of one painting. I had been teaching a class in Color at City College where I had my students do light testing of all their art materials and as many food and plant materials as they could think of. When I did a light test of the eucalyptus sap (three months in a window receiving strong sun) I found that instead of fading or vanishing completely like most plant-based colors, it becomes darker! This has become an ongoing experiment, interaction and relationship with this beautiful tree that we planted twenty years ago outside our house.

Detail of painting by Jenny Badger Sultan:'Dreaming my Ancestors'. The sepia tones are resin from a tree behind my house.

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