WHITEWALL: Judith, tell me more about “Trees, Inside Out.”
JUDITH BELZER: This project started when Christina [Kim, the owner of dosa818] came to me and said that she was interested in doing a project for this space. Her spring line was somehow inspired by my work that she had seen in my studio. And she said that she wanted me to do something that would surprise her clients and her, as well. Because the space is so large and there’s so much light, because really I do two-dimensional work on the wall, I wanted to come up with an idea that would be both respectful of the space and present the work in an interesting way. I’ve been working towards an interest in creating a sense of being inside nature and this provided an opportunity to develop an idea that allowed experience of trees and nature, both from the exterior from the outside and travelling to the inside of trees.
WW: We have two plywood casings and the paintings are integrated inside the boxes.
JB: The couple of paintings on the outside are set into the plane of the outside and are referring to bark and the outside of trees. Then you step up into the structure and they are paintings about the inside of trees. It’s about the inner life of trees and our experience when you walk up to them, trying to project what’s going on inside of nature, and that it’s not an inert thing. It’s a constantly moving, dynamic experience in our every day lives.
I was very interested in using plywood to build the structures because, first of all, it’s from the core of trees and it’s a very urban setting. And I wanted to have a juxtaposition of images taken from my memory of walking outside and juxtapose it with the everyday, mundane material and making a relationship between the construction materials and the painting. I’m interested in nature, not as a remote romantic idea, but something that’s related to our everyday life. Plywood is equally involved in our everyday life as a tree outside our door. This is not a special view of nature it’s about an everyday view of nature and trying to establish a much closer relationship.
I’m interested in nature, not as a remote romantic idea
I wanted the two structures to have a different feel. One is square and closer to the ground and has larger paintings. This box is taller, sort of more elevated, and the paintings on the outside are verticals and I’ve broken it up into small pieces on the inside. So the boxes have different characters. That was the idea.
WW: Does this installation reflect on, “What’s your connection with ecology?” Is it a new consciousness? Is it overplayed?
JB: I don’t think it’s overplayed. I’m not that interested in work that’s around that has to do with the environment. It seems like people could just write an article. It’s not related to the actual visual experience. I’m interested in giving an opportunity for people to make a relationship with nature so that they can hopefully think beyond all the things that we’ve done to create all the ecological problems. It seems like the first step to think about what to do is to actually have a relationship with nature and see that we’re apart of it and it’s part of our everyday life, hopefully bringing it closer to us and engaging with nature so that we can sort of really think about the issues we have in front of us.
I came across some images of paintings by Judith Belzer at the Room for Painting / Room for Paper website this weekend, and quickly went to Belzer’s website to view her work. Her most recent painting series, entitled “The Inner Life of Trees”, is a gorgeous set of paintings. Over time Belzer’s gaze has increasingly moved closer and closer to her subject matter. These most recent paintings evidence someone who has completely given in to her muse, and who is adrift in a sea of beauty inherent in the patterns of nature. These works recall Turner and Blake, but while those works were visually fantastic in their use of color, Belzer utilizes a cooler palette and rhythmic repetition of organic patterns. Her palette of grays, ochres, siennas and viridian green is simply wonderful, and no doubt informed by photography. While these works read like non-representational paintings, Belzer still identifies these works as landscape, which is understandable. After years of painting, Belzer has come upon a singularly beautiful imagery in her painting. I can’t wait to see what comes next from her.
In New England, where Judith Belzer lived and worked as a painter for nine years, the landscape was intimate, always just an arm’s length away. Home was Cornwall, Conn., a town of 1,500, where Belzer and her husband and son lived in a house surrounded by trees, a pond and dairy farms.
When she moved to Berkeley in 2003, Belzer found that the skies are larger, the scope much grander here. “One of the things that struck me is this incredible shift of scale. We feel so much smaller as a person standing in the landscape of the West Coast than on the East Coast.”
Belzer, who is married to the writer and naturalist Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”), is an oil painter who makes semiabstract work that captures the moods and textures of nature. Her new show, “The Inner Life of Trees,” opened this month at Room for Painting Room for Paper, a new gallery at 49 Geary St. in San Francisco. It runs through Nov. 8.
The paintings, mostly arranged in multiple panels, not only evoke tree rings and the ridges of bark but also suggest the movement and rhythms of ocean waves and sand. In her notes for the show, Belzer wrote, “Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of crawling along the bark of a tree and then somehow penetrating to the tree’s interior is enticing, even thrilling.”
George Lawson, director of the gallery, praises the “wonderful, radiant imagery” and the fusion of realism and abstraction in Belzer’s work. “Judith seems to understand in her painter’s bones what a swinging gate the natural world that surrounds us is,” he writes.
The autumn light is soft and the air through her window balmy as Belzer, 52, sits in the basement studio of her home in North Berkeley to talk about painting. “A lot of people look at nature as something remote and romantic, far removed from us,” she says. “But I’ve always been interested in seeing nature as an active force in our experience – not something that’s, you know, saved for a nice day when you decide to go for a walk.”
Belzer walks a lot: in Tilden Park, in the streets surrounding her home. She doesn’t take photographs or draw sketches on her wanderings, but returns to her studio and makes paintings “very much out of my head and my imagination.” When she works she’s always listening – to the radio, to a podcast or more often to a book on tape.
“It’s actually really great for doing visual work. I really don’t understand how the brain works at all, but somehow, by engaging with a narrator, it’s very stimulating to the visual side of my brain. In a funny way, it almost distracts me so I’m not overthinking what I’m doing.”
The world of language is just as important to Belzer as the natural world. She was always an avid reader and in college took a major in English despite her background in art. She’s passionate about fiction – she recently listened to the unabridged “Moby-Dick” on tape – and mentions Willa Cather and Thomas Hardy as novelists for whom the natural world is a vivid presence, like a character in the book.
Belzer, who is young for her age, has the aspect of a woman whose life has unraveled in slow, easy currents, and not in fits and jolts. She met Pollan in 1974, when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore at Bennington College in Vermont. They’ve been together ever since – in Vermont, then Manhattan, then Connecticut and now Berkeley – and were married in 1987. Their son, Isaac, a student at Marin Academy in San Rafael, is 16.
She knows how rare it is to find a soul mate early in life and remain together. “For a while I thought, ‘I’m just way too young to get this seriously involved.’ But now I feel pretty lucky that I didn’t have to go through a lot of what I’ve watched all my friends go through.
“It’s been great. You know, a lot of people who get involved when they’re very young are sort of stuck in the same place as when they met. But I really feel like we’ve managed to grow up together. And he’s a writer and we have lots of things to talk about … different ideas about nature and culture and things like that. I feel very lucky. It’s been a great, very rewarding relationship.”
As she speaks, workers are hammering and sawing upstairs. Pollan’s writing studio, recently demolished because of dry rot, is being rebuilt. It’s only in the past five years, since Pollan took a job as Knight Professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, that his career has taken off. With his best-sellers “The Botany of Desire,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” Pollan has become one of the country’s major voices on agribusiness, nutrition and the ecology of eating.
Being married to a literary celebrity, Belzer says, “is a little challenging for me. I’m really proud of him and I think he does wonderful work. I don’t really like being ‘Mrs. Michael’ that much. … But I pretty much just do my work and try to keep my head down and not get too bothered by that.”
Belzer doesn’t see her nature paintings as political – as an advocate for environmental sensitivity – but she believes passionately that people needs to re-establish “a direct connection to our natural world. Unless we do that, we’re just going to continue living as if it doesn’t matter – as if it’s just always going to be there the way it is now.”
The Inner Life of Trees: Recent paintings by Judith Belzer. Through Nov. 8. Room for Painting Room for Paper, 49 Geary St., San Francisco.