In south-central Utah, due east of Moab and north of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, lives one of the most remarkable creatures on Earth.
From the edge of an alpine lake, a forest of quaking aspen climbs the steep angle of a hillside. A portion of this high-altitude forest – 107 acres of it, comprising some 47,000 trees – is one single organism: a clonal colony of aspen growing from a single root system. The colony weighs around 6,600 tons, making it the world’s most massive organism.
Pando, as this colony of quaking aspens is known, has been alive and regenerating itself for at least 80,000 years. The name is Latin for “I spread.”
Painter Frank Balaam discovered Pando a few years ago, when he found himself – along with the painter Nora Balaam, his wife – sketching in the forest by Fish Lake, unaware that they’d stumbled into the arms of a single, gigantic tree.
Since then, Balaam has painted several series of canvases from Pando. These canvases, ranging in size from 14 x 11 inches to 50 x 36, offer, in the artist’s words,
“the sensation of being alive in a living forest”– achieved through the use of assertive color and a style suspended between representation and abstraction.
The Pando’s Children series delights in the opulent, drenched light of full day, as the aspens lift their brilliant leaves to the mighty sun.
The Timeless Forest series exalts the withdrawing light of dusk – when leaves change their colors from moment to moment and, as Balaam notes, “colors become richer, shadows grow deeper, and the exotic life of night begins to stir.”
With the Last Supper series – “A Last Summer” and “One Last Summer” – Balaam, in his own words, “celebrates a beautiful life.” For Pando may be dying.
In recent years the colony has failed to regenerate itself, and unless humans choose to protect and support it, Pando will gradually shrink and eventually wink out of existence.
In the Last Supper paintings, Balaam draws parallels between the lives of two magnificent beings and illustrates the intimacy of grief and joy.
To achieve luminosity and aliveness in his forest paintings, Balaam employs reverse painting: in an upending of the traditional technique, he paints the immediate foreground first, then the mid-ground, and last the most distant light and leaves. As a result of this process, Balaam also never paints one color over another.
“All the brushstrokes are laid over white canvas with the bright white ground,” Balaam notes, “exploiting the translucence of oil painting to create an effect similar to that of stained glass.”
“Every leaf and every brushstroke has its own dedicated area of pure white canvas,” Balaam writes. “It doesn’t compete for space or have its brilliant, individually colored shape diminished by interfering over-painting or blending.”
Balaam’s art celebrates lively contrast and harmony, leaving aside conflict and domination.
Events in the outer world have sometimes intersected dramatically with Balaam’s career. When the Rodeo-Chediski fire roared through the forests of eastern Arizona in 2002, Balaam was there to do plein air painting, and he witnessed at first hand the forest’s vulnerability and its acceptance of its own destruction.
A few years later, his own work – more than a thousand paintings and sketches – burned in Globe’s Pioneer Hotel fire. This event eventually led Balaam to turn to forests for re-connection and renewal.
This year, the Covid-19 pandemic overshadowed Balaam’s first solo exhibition, which featured the Pando work. The show, at Ventana Fine Art on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, opened on May 9. Instead of traveling there to hang his work, Balaam shipped it to the gallery.
Balaam says, “It hung in all its glory and not a soul saw it.” The day after his show came down, the gallery reopened.
Balaam is spending this pandemic season at his home in Globe, with Nora. He paints every morning. “I have paints, I have a studio,” Balaam says. “We live happily together in total isolation, which we have been doing for years. So for us, life itself is quite content.
“We’re obviously not unaffected by what is going on around us. We all live at the apex of all the influences around us. All our past and our upbringing and experiences have contributed to this moment. At this moment, I carry a long-handled brush and I dip it in paint and I put it on a canvas, and that is my now. That brushstroke is my now.”
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She is currently traveling long-term and researching a book on dance. You can follow her writing on the website medium.com, under the pen name SK Camille.