Old Man Willow

“Old Man Willow,” based on the character in Lord of the Rings, photographed by Frank Magalhaes.

Joyce Kilmer may never have seen a poem lovely as a tree, but Frank Magalhaes proclaims “I Am a Tree” in a series of photographic tapestries on view at Gallery 14 in Hopewell through May 27.

The Princeton resident began making tree portraits on paper more than six years ago, but to eliminate the reflection on glass over a paper print he has moved to working in bronze-tone monochromes printed on satin.

Magalhaes took the name “I Am a Tree” from a chapter title in Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, about murder, mystery and miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire. Each chapter of that metafiction presents a different point of view.

“I took ‘I Am a Tree’ because I think of trees as creatures,” says Magalhaes, who has been making photographs since his teen years in the 1950s.

Unlike typical landscapes, which may have a tree off to the side, Magalhaes keeps the tree front and center in his portraits. He finds his protagonists in Nova Scotia, the American West, New York State and in the Princeton-Hopewell area. The trees he aims his lens at are wise old men with stories up their trunks.

Often bared of leaves, the trees show their muscle, their bulges, their starkness. The

“Sycamore, Mind Road, Hopewell,” by Frank Magalhaes.

branches, sometimes feathered with needles, can stretch even further than the most advanced yogi. There may be snarls and tangles, or a broken, lonely carcass.

With open road or expansive sky as companion, “the tree tells me if it’s right for a portrait,” says Magalhaes. Conifers that have been scorched by fire or sycamores with blistering white bark often catch his lens. It reminds us that trees, unlike humans, look best when they’re old.

“Old Man Willow” pays homage to the eponymous character in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When the Hobbits stop to rest under Old Man Willow they become trapped by his roots until Tom Bombadil checks the evil and sets them free.

Magalhaes has taken the scanned text and posterized it, breaking it into lights and darks, re-creating the image out of text pixils.

A former electrical engineer who retired from Bell Labs in 1989, then spent a decade writing and editing poetry, Magalhaes has perused Lord of the Rings so many times, he’s lost count. He read it out loud three times: Twice to his children and once to his partner, Rita Asch, a composer, pianist and sound artist, with whom he is part of the Princeton-based art collective MOVIS. Asch composed a short piece for “Old Man Willow.”

We hear at first loud frightful sounds, then a growl, then a lightening sound, getting up and walking. Pound Pound Pound, a deepening pound, then a light trill and a flute. There’s a conversation between the heavy growl and the trill, then waves crashing.

“It’s all electronic generated sound,” says Asch. “There’s pan flute, timpani, and double bass way out of the range that a real double bass could play to achieve the grumbly, earthen sound.”

Sometimes, getting permission to make a portrait of a tree can be more challenging than gaining permission from a human. When Magalhaes was shooting a broken-down old thing with stunted branches spearing out and a tangle of dried vines like a nest at its core – he’d found his subject along the edge of a farm — a worker approached him and told him he couldn’t stand there. Not one to be easily dissuaded, Magalhaes engaged him in conversation about the tree.

The worker confided he wanted to take down the old mess but his boss didn’t agree. Then along came the boss in a truck, and when Magalhaes showed him some tree portraits, the farmer granted permission – as long as Magalhaes stayed outside the fence.

Magalhaes grew up in Westfield, but his grandparents lived in the Sourland Mountains of Hopewell where he first went crazy for a gingko tree in their backyard. Among the other varieties that capture his lens are a beech in front of a Victorian building on Hopewell’s main street, or a birch bowed into an arch over a path through sunlit leaves.

Says Magalhaes: “I find it no stretch to think of a tree as a creature with a personality, something I can commune with.”

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