Mega Poatina tree drawing
Drawing – 8 sides to the Poatina Tree

‘Tree’ the name rings out across the dust desert playground of Bankstown Boys High. I turn around. Everyone knows me as tree. Sometimes nick names do more than stick. Trees have become my artistic life.

Why would I spend fifty hours passionately drawing this tree. Foolhardy I said to myself many times in the process. At the end I had RSI in the right elbow – restricting me for six months. You could call me an arborphile. I am passionate about trees and want to paint just about any tree given time in it’s company.


The Nick Name – Tree

I had moved to the city – Western Sydney – Bankstown. It was a big shock moving from the small country town of Coolamon. In Coolamon we had a very active Scout troop. It was tough competition with strong boys. I was known as one of the weakest. In fact I had been bullied quite a lot in the town. Thankfully not at scouts. British bulldogs was a popular game. Physical and rough as the idea was to make it from one side of the hall to the other without getting rugby tackled to the hard wooden floor on the way. One bit of advise ‘Skip’ gave was – if the guy was big tackle them low like a spitfire taking down a bomber.

Fast forward. My first night with my new troop. Third Bankstown. I knew no one. Game time and British Bulldogs came up. There was one big bruiser in the group. My heart sank – now they get to find out I’m a wimp.

The new guy

I got to be in the middle. I was the new guy. “British bulldogs come on through!” this was the challenge -The outcome was not as I had imagined. Well I bought them down with ease. One after the other. Early on I got the big guy. And again and again. Finally in frustration he called me Tree. – “Your tree! I’m going to call you tree from now on.”

Puzzled I asked why? The answer was rather comic. “Because you have branches everywhere.” At the time the Commonwealth Bank had a series of ads by comics Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The banks was compared to a tree because it had branches everywhere. Every one laughed and from that moment I was Tree. The next day at School everyone was calling me tree. Wow it spread fast.

I learnt something else that night. I might have been the weakest in a bunch of strong guys but I had actually learnt to play the game well. In this new bunch I was respected instantly. Reputations are often made in an instance. Respect made it to the playground along with the nickname. And to my relief I was no longer bullied.


Trees in my art

As told in my story It started with a $2 paint set, 18 months earlier I had started painting and my early successes were with drawing and painting trees. But I mainly did general landscapes. Trees were present but often – as I did these from photographs, they were the design element to the left or right of the picture. Not the subject. In fact I particularly enjoyed painting the mountains and gorges of Central Australia.

Co-incidentally I started painting plein air on family holidays. First on our Queensland trip to Lamington National park. Then in South Australia’s alligator Gorge. Then finally on a trips to the Northern Territory – as my parents had moved to Alice. It was on these trips that I started to make observations about trees and they began to feature in my work.

Break through.

My first posting was at the last high school in the far west of NSW, Coomealla High. I was at heart a bush boy. I was Born in the wheat belt of Western Australia, in a heat wave. The bush did not worry me but the change of pace did. I was bored, trying to get my bearings in this small town. Just out of art school, I was wanting to get the lay of the land.

This led me to journeying out into the desert for drawing and painting ideas. One of my favourite locations was only a few kilometers from town. Fletchers Lake was a salt lake, and on it’s shore were myriads of dead things encrusted in the salt. I began a number of photographic documentary journeys on this lake.

Lunch under some trees

One day on a trip to Fletchers I saw patch of Mallee box trees. Thinking that this would be a perfect spot to get out of the sun and have lunch, I walked over to them. They turned out to be very old and gnarly Mallee Box trees with some wonderful forms.

Luncheon on the grass, About the inspiration for Russell's Art direction.
Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe inspired my figures in Landscape No.1 1980

As I had my break, my luncheon in this shade of the desert, these three trees reminded me of the Manets painting. Although flipped the trees take similar posture. I came to understand that in the Australian landscape we see trees from underneath their life giving canopies, not as a ornament to pastoral vista. Thus they populate the landscape with their immovable presence. Trees are sculptural three dimensional created living beings who know and survive and thrive in their environment. So my Figures and Figure in Landscape series began: In 1980 in the desert.

I came back and did drawings and then I did two unusual things. First I didn’t start small. No! 5 x 4 feet in size it was a studio work and I didn’t use a pallet knife. I think I wanted it to last so for the first time I decided to use brushes. The painting was company for me in the lonely evenings. I particularly liked painting late at night with the Ashes series broadcast from England for background noise.

The tree portrait

A trip on a house boat led me to my second big painting. We were moored to the Murray river bank at Boundary bend – out of Mildura. I had my drawing pastels with me. The view of the tree from on the river was spectacular.

It was my second year of teaching at ‘Coomey’ and I decided to provide some extra studio time for my art students in a weekly after school session. I needed something to do artistically. So working from my sketch I went big again.

Single tree in portrait style
Figure in Landscape No. 1 1981 4 x 4.6 feet

It is perhaps here that my photographic series work began to influence my painting. I decided that single trees would be painted in portrait style. But I also determined to establish some rules. Single trees would be placed central on the canvas as one would a portrait. I was already seeing trees as a human metaphor or presence in the landscape from my Dejeuner sur l’herbe painting. A further rule was that I keep the figures paintings front, as though sitting under the shade, but looking through to an open sky. But the singular figure would be with vertical background, as the bank above provided. This gave them a more studio portrait feel.

The Tree patterns were set.

My next painting was 6ft by 3ft. I had learnt something valuable – make sure the picture could be transported in the car. It was with the next one I began painting on site. I even made an easel to lug with it. It was the first brush painting I had taken plein air. Although it was a combination of on location and studio work.

Figures No 2
Figures in Landscape No. 2 1982

Unbeknown to me at the time the die had been caste. From this moment on I would only paint trees, (with two exceptions). Trees became my artistic driver. I had found both my style and my reason to paint. Forty years later I am still passionate about painting trees. I guess the nickname really stuck.