Artists, Interview, Online

Interview with Tracy Witelson

Tracy Witelson` s first solo exhibition, entitled “Tree Songs” opened to the public earlier this month at the Artyli gallery in Milpark, and has been well attended. Tracy`s body of work is both refreshing and engaging, enticing one into a more intimate engagement with the artworks. The potter Paulus Berensohn spoke about ‘singing up the earth’, a phrase that has really inspired Tracy. In this body of work, she is trying to find her own ‘tree songs’ using a variety of processes including embossing, linocuts, etching and chine collé. Learn more about this fascinating artist, in her interview with

What was your earliest influence in terms of creating?

Both my Dad and my Gran made things and are my strongest childhood influences. I learned carpentry from my Dad and to knit, sew and crochet from my Gran. We also had a book on Michelangelo that fascinated me and most likely introduced me to painting and more particularly to sculpture. At High School I was fortunate enough to have had Carolyn Morrison as my art teacher. She was simply brilliant in sharing her deep love of art and affirmed and encouraged my artistic tendences.

Who has had the biggest influence on your art, and why?

I am unable to choose a single ‘biggest’ influence. In terms of inspiration, I turn always to the natural world which offers an endless treasure. I have been fortunate to have had excellent teachers and collaborators. I am simultaneously influenced by visual artists, creative writers, dancers, musicians and by the children I teach. I suspect that I draw on both conscious and unconscious influences which come together in a way that I’m aware of but don’t control. In the very broadest sense, I think having a studio space to work in and a vast array of materials to choose from, is my greatest influence, since it offers me the raw materials I need to work with.

Your work seems to incorporate many different processes, how has this evolved over the years, and how does process inform your work?

I think I can confidently say that I am led by process. Once I have the beginnings of an idea, I usually then begin by exploring it in a variety of media and very soon the process begins to provide the clues I need for the direction the work wants to take. In that sense, the art leads the way. I’m predominantly a sculptor and enjoy the physical interaction with materials. I have recently returned to printmaking and have discovered a wonderful collaborator in the etching press. ‘Tree songs ‘ is a body of work that emerged as I engaged with drawing, sewing and printing processes.

Has your ongoing involvement with teaching and education inspired or influenced your studio practice?

As a result of the outstanding Art Education training I received at JCE (now Wits) in the eighties, I am fortunate to be familiar with a very wide range of processes and materials. This foundation instilled in me the idea that a work needed to be informed by the chosen media and that combining and layering processes can further enrich an image. I am inspired by the way young children create and find myself easily influenced by them, especially their honesty and unselfconscious expressive freedom.

Developing a body of work takes a great deal of time and thought, what was your time involved in developing your exhibition “Tree Songs”?

I developed this work over a period of 10 months, working in the times between my teaching commitments.

Can you tell us more about your thinking/concept/philosophy behind Tree Songs?

‘Tree songs’ is a confluence of my free associations around trees. Wood is a wonderful material to sculpt and years ago I used to carve cut Jacaranda wood which I salvaged from pavements. In this exhibition which is a celebration of trees, a song to trees, I have translated the exposed lines of cut wooden trunks into linocuts. The science of using tree rings to date trees and carry out environmental studies is called dendrochronology, a process where scientists ‘read’ the tree rings. In thinking about this, I considered that the tree itself is a gentle and silent observer, knowing and recording our shared time on earth in rings. I used three linocuts to create prints and embossings on paper and clay. I addition I added chine-colle elements to the paper images which I created by etching and sewing paper.

The lino embossings are reminiscent of great suns or moons, hovering over horizons and this association/image was the catalyst for further exploration. I added printed tree rings, overlaid with the sewn images of the physical external appearances of various indigenous South African trees. In doing this I began working with both the outward appearance and the inner life of trees and used the broken sewn line to gentle describe the forms. The ideas vary considerably incorporating ink drawings and chine-colle cut of trees, texts, nests, birds, houses, leaves and figures.

To describe the strangeness of 2020, I’d turned to L Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz”, a story in which a young Dorothy’s life is thrust into chaos by a tornado. The movie had terrified me as a child and now seemed a good metaphor for the Covid-19 pandemic. Without replicating the story, I chose characters and elements to emboss into clay relief works, forming my own narrative. The tree rings echo the inside of a tornado, lifting houses, chairs, ladders, trees, crows, axes, oil cans, flying monkeys and the tinman himself into its spirals. I titled these with the prefix “Tree song”, a hope that trees would remain their sturdy selves, living, changing carbon dioxide into air and recording time- celebrated silent observers of us, amidst the Covid-19 upheavals.

The tinman is a metaphor for us, since at some point in the Wizard of Oz story, he is immobilized by rust and with his oil can out of reach, stuck in the forest with his axe. This immobility echoed both the isolation we have experienced and in a completely different way the “stuckness” we seem to be experiencing in relation to forests and the natural world more generally. He appears in many of my images, a solitary standing figure, desperately in need of oil and new found mobility.

The printed lino works explore an intriguing story I heard about a tree. Years after the Chernobyl nuclear holocaust, one of the worst in history, scientists after declaring all life to have been destroyed, noticed a single old tree once again showing signs of life and putting out leaves. The tree had appeared dormant and was presumed dead along with every living thing in an area of the worst fallout. My four square formats pay homage to this resilient tree and are titled: Standing, Circle of gold, One tree and Moon.


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