An Art Walk Through Our Home: Spirit Tree for Richard

A Very Special Gift

Spirit Tree for Richard is a mixed-media print by Mary Dryburgh, a former colleague of my husband when he taught at Tulsa University.  She is a printmaker and professor who now teaches at Columbia Basin College in Washington.  She’s also collaborated with writers on beautiful limited edition books, such as poets William Stafford and Naomi Shihab Nye.

“Richard,” if you haven’t already figured it out, is my husband.  Dryburgh kindly gifted the print to him, one from a series of Spirit Tree prints she made.  My husband recalls Dryburgh would continue working with her prints after the printing process, smudging the prints with her hands, for instance.  There is no number on the front of the print, which would be the case if the print was, say, number three of thirty identical prints. Rather than one among identical prints, this makes it a one-of-a-kind, extra-special gift.

Placement and Framing

Living in Tulsa was many, many moons ago, so we had the print stored or tacked up for a long time.  Before being properly framed and mounted behind glass, though, you could see the handmade papery material the image is printed on with its rough edges, hanging like a delicate animal skin.

If we had a fireplace, hanging the print above the fireplace would be perfect.  I think of the domed shape near the top of the print as echoing the curved front panel of a fireplace.  But we don’t have a fireplace.  We do have high ceilings and a place out of direct sunlight at the bottom of the stairs.

Dryburgh print

Seasons and Dimensions

It’s winter since there aren’t any leaves on the tree.  The branches cradle a skull.  Have other parts of the skeleton been taken, perhaps finished off by the ravens Dryburgh likes to showcase in other prints?  Two branches look like horns or someone putting two fingers up behind someone’s head just before a photo is taken.

It could be a vase and flowers with the attenuating of the boughs toward the trunk.  This is one way the print plays tricks on you—are the tree and curving line making a 3-D vessel, the skull a kind of strange flower?  Or 2-D, the tree in front of a curving, black shape?  One second, a vase of flowers.  Then a tombstone behind a tree.  Then a hill behind a tree.  Then Emily Dickinson’s setting sun.  Then earth setting.  Then space or spirit taking on a shape.  Cloudy sky behind all of this.  It’s frightening, Gothic, and then peaceful.  The trickery, like some of the lavender and pink tones, is playful despite the serious subject and dark colors.

I looked up the Native American practice of burying the dead in scaffolds or trees.  The practice varies from tribe to tribe.  Generally, as in the art work, the body is laid in the fork of a tree and often positioned so the spirit goes in the right direction.  Beyond the end of the cycles of life that a tree represents is where you are.

Dryburgh print and staircase and cat

Your Favorite Horse to Accompany You on Your Journey

My eye always goes to the skull, first.  The skull looks too narrow to be a human skull, as John Brandenburg points out in an exhibit review:  And the skull is looking directly at us instead of turned upward, I would add.  John Brandenburg guesses it is a cow or horse.  Since Dryburgh was taking riding lessons at the time, I’m going to guess it’s a horse skull.  Well, and because I’m also a middle-aged woman taking horseback riding lessons.  Are the two dangling bones my eye goes to next the horse’s distinctive toes around the hoof?  A sly hint about what’s depicted?

When I looked up tree burials and other images of them, I was struck by one image including a horse sacrificed and laid out underneath a scaffold.  Unlike the images I looked at, if this is a horse, it rests in the fork of the tree instead of on the ground, dutifully under its owner.  All one ton or more of it hefted there after death.  Is the owner below, where we can’t see?  The placement of the horse suggests the owner is irrelevant, and the horse is not a sacrificial companion but the one grieved, the one lovingly prepared and sent in the right direction.

And that branch forking behind the skull’s head placed about where a horse’s ears would be that I thought of as horns?  They are much longer than a horse’s ears but suggest their sharp hearing, attuned to other worlds.  Radio antennas.  And their mischievous, intelligent behavior.  When riding, I try to read my horse’s ears to gauge his level of focus, intent, emotions.  They tell me volumes.

Something confusing is that “Spirit Tree” is defined as a totem rather than a place of burial when I looked up the term.  In the print, the artist seems to blend both ideas–burying a horse in a tree reveals its higher position above humans on the totem.  Or, at least, to the artist.  And to me, some days.

I remember Dryburgh saying once, “Horses are really just big dogs.”  I think at that point in Tulsa the mystique of horses and riding might have been fading for her.  Rather than an elegy for one particular horse, perhaps the print pays homage to that part of her life and says good-bye to it.

Questions the Trickery Makes Me Ask and Try to Answer

The print also takes me back to drawing class in college.  I can feel myself tracing the shapes with charcoal and smudging the lines, enjoying getting the rich black charcoal to cover the paper and my hands.  Because it’s a mixed-media print, it shifts in lovely ways from etching to charcoal drawing, ink drawing, then painting when I look at it.  Another kind of trickery.

Is the transition from one world to the next like moving from one dimension to another, one medium to another?  How do we ready someone to go there, and why can’t that someone be an animal?  What commonality do differing beliefs about death and burial share?  How can we mark transitions in life for which we don’t tend to have rituals?

For our condo, spirit goes up—up stairs.


Stairs in purple

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