Trees are scattered throughout our memories: an old oak holds up a tire swing, a tall pine guards a childhood home, and an apple tree stretches down its branches, placing its fruit within reach. Trees are characters of our lives, but they entered Susan Elliot’s life in a way she never expected. They now are the subjects of every piece of artwork she creates.
Elliot, 51, of North Monmouth has “doodled” her entire life, preferring ink and fine details. For a long time, she drew what people asked her to draw, whether it was a chickadee or a house.
“I like to use my imagination and I couldn’t do that,” Elliot said.
She learned through instructional books and conversations with artists. With her husband, she attended art festivals and galleries, looking for a niche, art that was identifiable to her.
“I read in an article that the true soul of an artist comes out when they draw what they love,” she said. “That led me on this big, long search.”
After drawing six or seven trees, she realized she had found her subject, and her artistic style finally clicked.
She sketches trees in ink and adds color with watercolor paint and colored pencils, working in many layers, using white acrylic paint to add splashes of light.
In two years, she has drawn 40 trees, but her life goal is 1,000. She has about five drawings going at once and a stack of unfinished pieces. Every week, she gets an idea and has to sketch it before it slips her mind.
“It’s like a light went on and my imagination is on high all the time. I can’t shut it off,” she said. “I’ve been drawing for 45 years, since I was very little, and I’ve never been this excited. I can’t wait to get home and work on things.”
For 35 years, she used only ink and white paper because she couldn’t afford paint. But when a contest wouldn’t accept her black-and-white artwork, she decided to introduce color one hue at a time, starting with blue and brown. She bought a color-mixing guide to refer to, but a lot is trial-and-error learning.
Now in her tree artwork, the colors often are ethereal, pastel shades, which adds to the mystical atmosphere of each landscape.
“There are a lot of things I haven’t figured out,” she said. “I want to be able to do fog and mist.”
Elliot, a Bath native, works full time at a veterinary clinic and draws at night. She lives in North Monmouth with her husband, their three grown children having recently moved out West.
She has a degree in natural resources, and her husband is a forester.
“We have a lot of outdoor knowledge between us; we both love trees and we live in the woods,” said Elliot. “I see faces — and so does my husband — in the trees.”
“It just seems natural to do something natural, something in the environment. I always tell people, if a human can do it, I can make a tree do it.”
She draws three different kinds of trees: humorous trees, trees with an environmental message and realistic trees.
“I use dancing trees a lot because that’s what they do when the wind moves them,” she said. “It’s easy to make the roots into legs and feet and their branches into arms.”
Elliot offers a free print to anyone who supplies her with a photo that she uses in her art, and she totes a camera with her everywhere she goes.
“Now, when the leaves are coming off, I’m getting excited,” she said. “The whole character of the tree comes out, all its shape and bark and gnarliness and faces and hair. All of the things I see in it are hidden when the leaves are on it.”
Apple trees, with their bent trunks and twisted branches, are the best subjects for her enchanting scenes. Faces are easy to see in the clear black marks of a white birch and the knots and nooks of old oak trees, she said.
“I like doing art that makes people think or laugh or be nostalgic,” she said.
As a child, she often climbed a tall pine on her family property to hide. She called it the “Secret Tree.” The tree still stands on her parents’ property, but houses have been developed around it and a road runs close to its base.
Each tree Elliot draws has a disposition and a history. The trees are characters; subjects that are almost human rather than objects to fill up the background of a painting.
The tree’s story is most often written on the back of her prints and cards. Elliot also writes the title, song lyrics or snippets of poetry under her artwork. Sometimes the words come before the art, and she searches for a tree to fit a certain quotation.
When the BP oil spill occurred in April, Elliot imagined the Earth sliding off into a huge abyss. In “Weight of the World,” a tree grasps the side of a cliff as its branches hold up the Earth, carrying it out of the crevasse.
“There are two things the world can’t live without,” she said. “One is the ocean and one is the trees. They are the water cycle.”
She gives the tree human characteristics because the image calls upon people to save the environment.
The mood created by her artwork is strikingly different when trees dance over the moon in “Marvelous Night for a Moon Dance.” Their naked, twisted branches and roots — arms and legs — flail in the starlight and the colorful bands of the northern lights.
And in “Time Out! I Have Something in My Eye,” apple trees sling apples at each other as they sway in a snowy orchard. The idea came to Elliot while she walked her dog in an orchard and the wind tossed apples down from the trees.
Elliot began showing her artwork at galleries and attending weekend festivals last year. She attended nine festivals and was pleased when she broke even in her art business. This year, she already has attended 10 festivals and has plans to make it to six more before the end of December.
“It’s a lot, but I feel like I started so late in my life that I want to get myself to as many places as I can as fast as I can,” she said.
Her collection of whimsical trees was the inspiration for an exhibition celebrating trees at the Monkitree gallery in Gardiner, in which Elliot is one of four artists showcasing their work. “Speak for the Trees: Four Women and the Trees That Inspire Them,” which will run through Nov. 13, is the third exhibition Elliot has entered work in. The other three artists in the exhibition are Linda Plaisted, Bridget McAlonan and Linda Murray.
“I think [Elliot’s] someone who has yet to be fully discovered in the state,” said Monkitree gallery owner Clare Marron.
“Clare likes to put an artist that people know and put them in a gallery with someone who no one knows, and I’m the one that nobody knows,” Elliot said.
This year, Elliot built an artist website and online store at www.susanelliot.com. On her website, “If Trees Could Talk,” she refers to herself as the Heartwood Artist. Heartwood is the strongest part of a tree, the section that no longer transfers water and nutrients but acts as a support for the growing trunk and branches.
On the main page, she quotes the Dr. Seuss character The Lorax: “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”