Trees are a symbol of the cycle of life, death and re-birth. They blossom from tiny saplings into enormous personifications of nature and beauty, they bear fruit, lie dormant during the colder months, only to burst forth into new life again with the turning of the seasons. All this and more is showcased in Arbor Vitae by Jeni Caruana, as Melisande Aquilina reports.
As I parked my car in front of the Majjistral Nature and History Park Visitor’s Centre in Għajn Tuffieħa to attend this exhibition, I mused that artist Jeni Caruana could not have chosen a more perfect and apt place to expose her paintings. Malta’s first Natural National Park, situated in a special area of conservation, with its prioritisation of natural habitats, encases her art display Arbor Vitae, which literally translates as The Tree of Life.
Passing from one type of woodland into another, made out of paint, love and inspiration, one feels like he is traversing a magical doorway from the realm of the physical into the kingdom of the spiritual.
Caruana has been living in Malta since 1978. Having her studio in Manikata, she holds regular solo exhibitions in Malta and abroad, as well as hosting painting classes and workshops. Her subject material ranges from landscapes to Prehistoric temples, wooden sculptures to ceramics. She is especially known for her focus on motion and the human figure, painting live music and dance performances.
Your artwork is very varied both when it comes to subject matter, as well as medium. What is your preferred main medium and why?
I like to experiment with different combinations of media, and also methods that are more difficult to predict. The piece then has a chance to speak for itself. I feel that if I am in too much control and too tied to the outcome, it can become conventional and just about what I am thinking, rather than what I am feeling. I prefer the organic flow of watercolour and/or the slightly more stable acrylics, but I mix these with other mediums that I can draw or mark-make with. I like the thrill of working alongside my media, rather than over-controlling it.
Motion and energy permeate most of your works – why this emphasis?
This is how I feel about life itself – everything is energy in motion, being expressed in different ways. Even stone is made of moving molecules, just in a denser format than, say, clouds. Everything is made of the same building blocks of star stuff (the name I gave one of the paintings in the Arbor Vitae collection) – just differently combined. Nothing is truly static. Just because we can’t see the movement of atoms and molecules in a table or a building doesn’t mean that they are not constantly in movement.
What is your creative methodology?
I work free hand. I find the two dimensionality of photos or screens impossible to connect to. When painting landscapes, I usually work outside, then finish them later in the studio. I work from live models when I paint figures. I love working live on site at festivals and dance studios as I enjoy the challenge of working fast and intuitively, and I love the life that is automatically captured in the pictures.
The fact that we are condoning mass deforestation and the destruction of trees and plant life is really very frightening
How has life in Malta influenced your work?
The light here is very different to the soft English tones I grew up with. I have lived here since 1978 so I think that all my work reflects the strong contrasts of light and the colours of the Mediterranean.
Do moods influence the way you work?
Anyone working sensitively within the Arts must of necessity be influenced by their moods and feelings, and also by the atmosphere and environment around them. I feel that is one of the main functions of art; to express human emotions and make them accessible to others. To communicate through our own unique gifts and talents.
Is painting your full-time job? Do you take regular commissions?
Yes, I paint full time and also give a few private classes. I take commissions very rarely as I find it near impossible to do things to order and paint what’s in someone else’s mind. It is very hard to make a living as an artist, which is a shame really, as the world would be so much duller without us!
What’s your take on the relationship between painting and music? Why do you aim to reflect this in your art?
I feel that everything is connected through varying vibrations of sound, light, colour and emotion/thought. When a musician goes beyond technique and discipline to become one with the instrument, the music plays through them both. Painting is the same. I find that pure connection fascinating and find that I can become part of the circle by losing myself in the immediacy of trying to paint musicians or dancers as fast as possible.
How many hours do you dedicate to painting every day? Do you set yourself a particular schedule?
I am hopeless at discipline or schedules. I find that I spend far too much time online these days, posting on social media, writing my blog, answering emails and stuff. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be so visible, but it does come at a price. I used to write a weekly blog about drawing techniques and my teaching philosophy etc, but found that it took me so long to think about and put each one together with pictures that I wasn’t painting enough. So, now my blog posts are only occasional and I spend more time painting.
Has becoming a mother influenced your artistic creativity?
I have two daughters – two masterpieces that I am very proud of! Of course they have influenced my creativity. When they were very small I didn’t have the time or head-space to create at all, but as soon as they were big enough I started taking them to life classes, jazz concerts and to other events with me. They soon joined in and started painting too!
Do you think an artist – be a painter, a musician, a dancer or a writer, is born or that he/she can become such?
I believe – and have proven countless times in my classes - that anyone can learn to draw. Artists see abstract space differently. Some children are born that way, most others can learn. It is a skill that can be taught relatively easily. I believe that is true of other arts too. After all, every child is able to draw, sing and dance to express themselves when they are small. Some are born gifted with a particular ability in one area, and they are usually able to hold onto that gift beyond the destructive criticisms of adults and the standardisation of the education system.
Why Arbor Vitae? Do you see the tree as a metaphor of yourself? Of life? Motion? Or something else?
All of the above. Trees have always held metaphorical importance for man; throughout the world, indigenous peoples have believed that trees were essential for mankind’s wellbeing. The fact that we are condoning mass deforestation and the destruction of trees and plant life is really very frightening. It’s time we woke up and realised how much we physically depend on them to filter the air we breathe and to balance the ecosphere we live in.
What do you wish to convey with this particular exhibition?
Firstly, to show how many fascinating connections we have to trees, from the physical to the arcane. My paintings range from abstract to the very realistic, to reflect the many ways we can see and connect to trees on different levels.
Secondly, I would like to bring attention to the excellent work being done at the Majjistral Nature and History Park, which benefits the whole of Malta. By preserving and protecting this large natural area, it acts as lungs for the whole country, which as we all know is highly polluted and over built.
The Park is managed by Din l-Art Ħelwa, Nature Trust and the Gaia Foundation. These NGO’s need support in not only financial terms but also volunteers to help with upkeep and protection. This is important work and worth recognition and promotion.
Arbor Vitae featured at the Majjistral Nature and History Park Visitor’s Centre in Għajn Tuffieħa.