The ‘100 Trees’ Group Exhibit at Modern Eden Gallery
100 Trees — One hundred trees planted for every artwork sold
As San Francisco’s Urban Forester (City Arborist) for Public Works*, with jurisdiction over 125,000+ street trees within the public right-of-way, and all the plants as well, I have attended many tree-related exhibits over the years. I love when people, even for a moment, notice trees. You would not believe how many people truly hate trees in San Francisco. But I’ll circle back to that later. When artists approach this mythological symbol, one of the most widely used to represent the earth or environment, or other conscious or unconscious metaphor of the self or other, I am all in.
Last night (4.9.2022) was the opening reception for Modern Eden’s group exhibit “100 Trees” honoring Earth Day 2022 by exhibiting new works inspired by trees. The gallery has partnered with One Tree Planted, a non-profit focused on global reforestation with the goal of planting 100 new trees for each artwork sold during the exhibition.
For full disclosure, and so you have a proper visual, I attended the opening reception last night in full flower. That’s not code for being high on cannabis. I have a performance-personality “trait” that started way back before breakdancing or BMX was even a thing in the early 1980s, continuing into high school athletics and all the hitchhiking across the country during college, the climbing of public trees and camping overnight up in them in San Francisco parks in my 30s, body positivity at certain types of beaches and in Jack Gescheidt’s TreeSpirit Project and reading poetry aloud on random street corners in recent years — these are all things I need to do to feel alive, to remain alive — and that I do totally sober.
So I showed up at the gallery in my “urban forest ranger” outfit, very similar to what I wear each year on Arbor Day, but with a pair of WWII-era binoculars around my neck and green Doc Marten boots on my feet. My gallery jacket is not tweed, but a forest green nylon windbreaker with oval cursive “Chris” patch above left breast. Also sewn onto my costume are patches proclaiming all my various tree ninja qualifications — certified arborist this, qualified tree worker that, all issued by national and international societies that exist, and of which I am an active member in good standing.
The gallery is on a ground floor space of an old SRO building with the open front door right off the sidewalk, located in the outer exhale of the Tenderloin. The Saturday, 6–9 P.M. reception was timed perfectly with the Tenderloin’s unofficial evening siesta, the lull between the bright drama of day and the terror nocturnus that follows.
Jay Riggio “Something Forever in the Distance”
This piece stopped me in my slow, quiet tracks. It was great to be back in a gallery after a two-year pandemic black out. To have lived through the pandemic in San Francisco is to have survived something. No fun, no joy; we all chose to suffer together. Total lockdown. No kids playing outside together. Don’t even jog, bike, or walk outside of your own neighborhood. For those of us in Bayview Hunters Point, the sidewalks were bumper to bumper on the sidewalk: with cars. No local “slow streets” here. Art is necessary. I waited two years to view this piece.
“Something Forever in the Distance” by Jay Riggio met my hungry imagination. Was this the famous surrealist model Lee Miller subjected to a male gaze behind a coif of forest for eyes, with three birds circling free in the mind? The beginning of the end of the pandemic always feeling like it was also something forever in the distance. Until our recent fire season air quality issues in the Bay Area, in a city, the larger environment can also feel like something forever in the distance. Which is why I prefer our proletariat street trees to Rec & Park’s bougie park trees. Not everyone makes it to a park, but we all walk the streets. Experiencing Riggio’s piece, a déjà vu, of being Man Ray at the 1913 Armory Show, just an attendee then, knowing what art welled within.
Over the next several days I spent a lot of time on many of the artists’ IG accounts and websites. Here is more info about Riggio and his work straight from his site:
“ Riggio, a self-taught visual artist, was born in Long Island, New York in 1978. Utilizing paper, paint, wood and multi-layered resin, his works combine fundamental elements of sculpture, collage and wood assemblage. These multimedia works depict dream-inspired stories through unique, surrealistic visual pairings: a reflection of the artists interpretations on life, love, humor and the human condition. In addition to exhibiting work in galleries around the world, Riggio has done commercial illustrations for brands like Gather Journal, The New York Times, Brooklyn Magazine, Alice McCall, A24 Films, Lovesick Skateboards and more.” @jayriggioart / Jayriggioart.com
Definitely one of my top five pieces in Modern Eden’s current 100 Trees exhibit. Urban Forester’s score: 5 out of 5 conifers.
Joshua Coffy “The Redeemer”
My wife and I own a painting by Joshua Coffy, a fellow San Franciscan, and the piece rests atop our mantle. It features my namesake, a buck. We cherish it. I have never met Joshua Coffy but I follow him on IG & fbook. He wears both his heart and his mind on both sleeves, and I appreciate his honesty. I’m a believer in letting it all hang out on social media. That’s what we’re all there for. It was through his posts that I learned about the upcoming 100 Trees show at Modern Eden.
This is what Josh posted about his painting The Redeemer: “I was reading about birds and forest fires. I discovered that birds help regrow burnt out forests. They fly back to their homes to investigate, and their droppings contain seeds of all the fruits and things they’ve eaten. Which in turn helps the forest regrow to be a healthy vibrant ecosystem once again. That inspired my latest piece The Redeemer.”
As San Francisco’s Urban Forester, I am a daily worshiper of both trees and birds, and Joshua Coffy is one of my favorite local artists. His huge mural on Market St. near Van Ness, is also one of my favorite murals in San Francisco (Bird Song #3). The tree he depicts in the large mural riffs off the shape of the tree nearby, a street tree that I manage, and this pairing of the adjacent tree to the mural brings great joy.
His piece in the Modern Eden exhibit features a weathered conifer species of universal appeal, resting atop a raven, and with the three-quarter rear-view angle of the bird, I had to laugh while standing there in the gallery, thinking about what Josh said about the bird’s role in seed dispersal — and this partial view of its rear. And it stands on an upside-down blackened forest, which is waiting beneath the surface to regrow. I followed Josh on IG as this painting evolved. He pulled it off in the end, as he always does. I wish artists could see the good, the great in their work, the way us viewers see it.
Urban Forester’s score: 5 out of 5 conifers.
Phillip Hua “Downsized Dicot”
Artist Phillip Hua’s visual art won me over years ago. My wife and I have visited his studio several times over the years and recently viewed some of his larger scale work at the Pier 70 exhibit that highlighted the work of artists who painted murals on boarded-up businesses during the pandemic. His incredible work of giant sandhill cranes was a pleasant surprise to come across at the January 22–23, 2022 exhibit “The City Canvas: A Paint the Void Retrospective”. It was the nation’s largest exhibit of mural art from the pandemic (for more info see Jamie Ferrell’s piece in Secret San Francisco). Maybe too soon to call anything related to the pandemic a retrospective just yet, but we get the idea.
Back to Phillip’s piece, Downsized Dicot. The goal of the current exhibit at Modern Eden is to fund global reforestation efforts through their partnership with One Tree Planted. The downsizing of forests across the globe is well documented. Pairing that word with dicot, the shortened name for dicotyledons, was in my botanical wheelhouse. The dicots are one of two groups into which all the flowering plants are divided. Most tree species are dicots. Pines are neither, they are conifers. One obvious interpretation for the name of this piece acknowledges the downsizing of forests, both in standing volume and the reduced space we’ll allow them to regrow. The word “downsize” is a common word used describing financial markets and used by molecular scientists when describing “downsized genomes”.
There’s also some head-scratching molecular jawing online about how to divide up all the dicots, so if we wish to do a brief deep science dive on this, the artist could be riffing on the molecular discoveries that have been coming to light since the 1990s, which has led to a bit of dicot downsizing.
Phillip Hua’s work typically places his subjects on a backdrop of many reduced-in-size, print newspapers. The subjects: trees, birds, flowers and even some people, are rendered on top, using repeated shapes in different sizes and number, creating a contemporary, even digital-looking aesthetic. Visually it’s a mix of timeless natural wonders through a lens of digital pixilation. Despite our digital “masks” we still see you, natural world.
This piece features a Eastern-flow, weather-shaped tree. I won’t even get into how he pulls off creating its form. Placed throughout the piece are sections of financial news clippings. The charts and graphs, the bells and whistles that comprise the global financial markets. There is a reason large healthy trees have been used as financial logos through the years. For a tree to grow, it is the result of internal checks and balances, yet always putting on growth, despite fleeting impacts. For some of the best writing on this topic, see Jerzy Kosinski’s character Chauncey “Chance” Gardener in the novel Being There. The writer delivers the ultimate connections and metaphors between the market and the garden. I’ve never bothered with the Peter Seller’s movie, but the novella is a must read. @philliphua / philliphua.com
Phillip Hua’s Downsized Dicot earns a perfect Urban Forester’s score: 5 out of 5 conifers. And green star for IG profile “Artist, Teacher, Nature Boy”.
Brian R. Donnelly “Castaway”
The artist Brian R. Donnelly’s contribution Castaway to the 100 Trees exhibit is irreverent and cheeky.
The painting depicts a ready-made, mass-produced, poor-quality, cheaply-fabricated flotation device of a sorry-ass-palm-tree, and does so swimmingly. The canvas itself is made of castaway material: about 80 hand pressed plastic shopping bags according to the Modern Eden exhibition website. When Charles Webb wrote the famous line about plastics in his novel ‘The Graduate’, delivered by a businessperson to an incredulous, recent graduate played by Dustin Hoffman, that toxic word “plastics” was also delivered poolside.
In Donnelly’s piece, the floatie itself looks like a cast off, far away island with the layered-back letters serving as the surrounding sea of subliminal advertising. The only legible words are the bottom line of text, which are right side up, unlike the rest of the text. They state: no frills.
The palm tree flotation device depicted in this manner makes waves and statements. It speaks to where the earth is headed, or where we have arrived already, with reduced canopy cover and the need to select species that are more and more drought tolerant to keep pace with global warming. Even if you happen to be a lucky one, living on an urban, tree-lined street, urban environments remain largely degraded.
The thin edge of yellow paint along the top border, is the sun above, and the overall limited earth or sky-based references, with zero shade cast on the scene, forces us out there, like that floatie, living within the oppressive sun-scorched heat islands of our souls. There is a somewhat anomalous green, rectangular bandaid or skateboard deck located in the upper left area of the canvas, and after some thought, it may be as simple as peeling back the layer of plastic to uncover the organic earth below.
In my imagination, you can find me after hours, adrift on a floatie, in the nearby pool of the Phoenix Hotel. Don’t forget your sunblock.
Spend some time at the artist’s IG account @bbbriandonnelly “Literal Figurative Painter — Toronto Enthusiast” or his website briandonnelly.org. You will be surprised by the face melting art you see there…
Urban Forester’s score: 5 out of 5 skateboard decks
Rebecca Mason Adams “Hayley #13”
This next piece in the show was well-timed so we could get out of the bright sunburn glare of the day and inside. On the way inside, I brought some deciduous tree cuttings and instead of turning on the overhead lights, to keep things cool, we just turned on the slide projector and lit the back wall with the high-contrast, stark, image-less light. I can feel the goosebumps surface along my cool, bare, arms. I sat in the banged-up poet’s armchair in the corner, and vegged out, taking a close look at the b+w paintings on IG by the artist Rebecca Mason Adams.
When I came across this description of Adams’ approach below, it was clear my writing for this piece was complete. It articulated what I was sensing. It used words that were coming to mind. I’m not stepping on this, I said to myself:
“This body of work is a point of connection between two mediums, reflecting my beginnings in photography and transition into painting. They are a study in film noir: contrasted lighting, bold graphics, and dramatic characters. They allow me to combine the instincts required in photography — a direct pathway from viewer to portrait — and my heart in painting, where light and form are open to interpretation and response by my hand. They are moments caught on film that bleed out into fields of pattern and shadow…” https://www.newamericanpaintings.com/artists/rebecca-adams @rebeccamasonadams / rebeccamadams.com
Urban Forester’s score: 5 of 5 b+w deciduous tree branches
Zoe Keller “Coast Redwood Canopy”
The artist Zoe Keller, a former Bay Area resident, uses meticulously detailed graphite and digital drawings to honor the land, from the redwoods of coastal California to the Wabanaki Confederacy territory of southern Maine. The art explores biodiversity and wild places.
“This graphite drawing features plants and creatures found in the unique canopy ecosystem of California Coast Redwoods. A Northern Spotted Owlet, Marbled Murrelet chick, Wandering Salamander and Silver-haired Bat, are gathered on a little tangle of epiphytes — organisms that grow on the Redwood itself: lichens, mosses, mushrooms, Leatherleaf Ferns, and Evergreen Huckleberry. (I couldn’t resist sneaking in a wee banana slug, even though they’re technically found on the forest floor!).” @zoekellerart / zoekeller.com
Urban Forester’s score: 5 out of 5 Marbled Murrelets
Tree Love, With Eyes Wide Open
Just as Zoe Keller’s piece “Coast Redwood Canopy” gathers some of the wild critters of this Left Coast, we’ll use it to gather-together on the ground floor exhibit at Modern Eden for a few concluding remarks. As San Francisco’s Urban Forester (City Arborist), I seek art to sustain my calling to civil service in one of the most densely populated urban environments in the country. I migrated west from the East Village with my partner a generation ago for Ferlinghetti and the redwoods. Neither has disappointed. Modern Eden’s group exhibit “100 Trees” has honored Earth Day 2022 by exhibiting new works inspired by trees. The gallery partnered with One Tree Planted, a non-profit focused on global reforestation with the foal of planting 100 new trees for each artwork sold during the exhibition. The exhibit is open for a few more days.
This land we call San Francisco was not originally planned with street trees in mind — those true proletariats of the urban forest. I really don’t think park trees are “bougie” it’s just an ice breaker I use to place urban trees of the street, park or wood, in the proper light. Urban trees are hella badass and street trees shouldn’t just be for the wealthy. We walk by street trees every day. You may not make it to a park during your average week. Most urban trees that you see, where consciously planted.
At least once a day I think to myself that my job is indeed a certain type of sparse, vaguely leafy hell. Nobody is happy. Nobody calls on the phone to tell me how much they love their tree — that the cut of light across the trunk was just right as they headed out onto the street. Or if they saw a Hutton’s Vireo or Ruby-crowned Kinglet in their neighbor’s street tree. The calls start with “I love trees, just not this one” and from there it only gets worse.
Someone wants to remove a tree? No, the tree is healthy and should remain. The tree that is totally dead, or clearly on its way out? We have serial appealers for that, or anarchists looking to monkey wrench “the system”. Records requests? Have at it. We’ll fix the sidewalk at no cost to you and . . . you still want to remove the tree? You love trees, but this one has to go. You have a photo with Al Gore? Um, okay. You planted thousands of trees in Malaysia? And that’s relevant, how?
Communities of concern with the least amount of canopy cover? Trees may represent gentrification at best and will block the illegal sidewalk parking, at worst. Backyards in the avenues? Don’t even look in the backyards in San Francisco, that last vestige of civil liberties also known as the Wild, Wild West — they are all paved over and resemble the Alcatraz recreation yard, from the Bay to the Pacific Ocean. De-pave it all now and offer some clean(er) water credits! All this wrapped together with a bow emblazoned in cursive with the City’s motto: mandatum unfunded.**
A tree grows in Brooklyn, and in the Tenderloin too***. It’s great to see urban trees receive the recognition they deserve as critical infrastructure, and my goodness the datasets documenting all the environmental, social and economic benefits that trees provide — it all still makes me a little uncomfortable, that we even have to make a case for city trees. Carbon sequestering this, water capturing that, particulate interception there, critical biodiversity habitat here, all while producing oxygen and yet if none of this were true, would you still not want to cut open the sidewalk and plant a tree?
On most days and each hour of “work” it remains an honor to serve and my colleagues are equally inspired to implement our Urban Forest plan — some of which did finally receive dedicated funding on that dreadful Tuesday night, November 8, 2016 when other decisions were made across the country. Not even California’s legalization of recreational cannabis that evening could lift our spirits. I came to the ‘100 Trees’ exhibit to take refuge from the struggle, to witness how others see trees. I cam for the Tree Love. The exhibit delivered and the art moved me.
At the opening reception I met artist and gallery co-owner Bradley Platz. What a nice guy. The gallery remained more or less open the entire pandemic and their website is a great resource where the work of many artists is on view and available for purchase (moderneden.com). When I explained that I was in the Modern Eden refuge for personal succor, we eventually turned the conversation to the streets outside.
Our next planting in the Tenderloin is taking shape, with a grassroots partnership between Friends of the Urban Forest, our local non-profit tree planting partner, and the Tenderloin Transgender District (the world’s first legally recognized Transgender District), and the Tenderloin Community Benefit District. The street tree planting is likely to occur in August or September.
“By supporting tree-planting, we hope to contribute to a healthier world in which nature, wildlife, and human creativity can thrive.” ~ Modern Eden
*for reference only
**Urban Forestry did receive funding for maintenance of existing street trees with the passage of Proposition E by 78% of voters on 11.8.2016. This is a very positive, massive sea change in how street trees are managed in San Francisco. We’re working to crank up the tree planting.
***except for this Norfolk Island Pine tree (Aracaria heterophylla), my favorite tree in the entire City, that was removed by the property owner in the early 2000s. Removed for literally no good reason. I know, b/c I spoke with the property owner on the phone when I was the Education Coordinator for Friends of the Urban Forest****. It was the Tenderloin’s best tree. Now we just have my 35mm slide. Photo was taken years before when I thought the tree would be there forever.
****for reference only