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'Tree of Life' Artworks to Go on Display in Huntington Beach

November 07, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET | For The Times

From the decks of the Huntington Beach Central Park Library, visitors can gaze past glass walls at a flowing, two-tiered pool and a park filled with trees. Inside, bushes and a fig tree grow among tables, near stone pillars and fountains.

In its own way, the library and multipurpose building designed by architect Richard Neutra is a work of art that celebrates nature. So it is appropriate that the building's Municipal Art Gallery will display artist Vicki Feldon's "tree of life" fabric wall hangings and bas relief carvings beginning Sunday in a show titled "In Praise of Trees."

In Feldon's art, birds, trees, snakes, suns and moons mingle in what often looks like miniature Gardens of Eden. Other works honor trees alone, in pleated cloth hangings and sensuously carved scraps of exotic hardwoods.

Feldon has been making art based on the tree of life motif for the last 10 years.

"The tree of life covers so much that I don't think I will reach the end (of the theme) for a long time," she said recently in her Irvine apartment, which she and her husband, Milt, have filled with contemporary art, folk art and books.

Feldon, 65, has long been interested in folklore, mythology and art. Growing up in "an East Bronx ghetto neighborhood," she attended a Jewish folk school every afternoon after public school, "to learn the language and traditions of my people," she said. She also took college-level art classes before marrying Milt 45 years ago, leaving New York and eventually settling with their three children in Southern California.

When her youngest child entered kindergarten, Feldon began taking classes at El Camino Junior College, then went on to earn a bachelor's degree in art and art history and a master's degree in comparative folklore and mythology at UCLA. Later, she earned a Ph.D. in comparative culture at UC Irvine. She has taught university extension courses in folklore and folk art, and now sometimes gives lectures on these subjects to community groups.

Feldon's studies gave her "a feel for cultures that are more subjective, more intuitive, more poetic, more imaginative" than American culture, she said. The tree of life, she said, represents the idea "that there's always growth, that there's always renewal, and that in nature we find the source of everything. That the earth is sacred, and that we must revere it. . . . I see the tree of life as an all-embracing symbol for a habitable, peaceful world."

Artists, she said, "are idealists, and people tend to make fun of idealists and say how impractical they are." But, she said, "I'm trying to make images that will make people see ideals are possible to achieve. I don't believe in a confrontation, but in a gentle message. . . . I do not make Smokey the Bear 'Save Our Trees' type posters, nor avant-garde, agitprop installations. I am not neo-anything, not on the cutting edge" of art.

Still, saving real trees is important, Feldon said. "These are the diamonds of the future," she said, holding up a poplar wood carving she calls "The Water of Life." "If (people) keep treating hardwoods the way they're treating hardwoods now, eventually they're going to be extremely rare, and they'll be like gems are now. This is one of our most precious resources, and it's going down the tubes."

The tree symbol, Feldon said, is "the major symbol in every single religion. It's the idea of fertility, and that's the most basic human concern. . . . The forms that it takes are the forms of the culture," Feldon said. For instance, "in Judaism, if you look at the basic structure of the menorah, it is a tree form, with trunk and branches. The torah is also the tree of life, and each of the two staves holding the torah scrolls is called the tree of life," she said. The symbol also turns up in Christianity, Buddhism and other religions, Feldon said.

In Judeo-Christian culture, the tree of life is in the Garden of Eden, she said. Adam and Eve never appear in her work because human figures would "almost look like caricatures," she said. But in one hanging she incorporated "two apples with a bite out of each one--so I'm depicting the moment after Adam and Eve took bites, took one look at each other, and took off," she said, laughing.

When making her wall hangings and carvings, Feldon eschews power tools. "I like the look and the feel of doing everything by hand," she said. "If you just go, zip! you're not thinking. Or you're not feeling, rather." Each piece she makes is a "meditative" experience that takes many "weeks, hours . . . I don't keep track."

She also must work in solitude. "I consider myself so fortunate," she said. "My family's grown, and I can isolate myself. You have to pull a Garbo: 'I vant to be alone.' "

Cloth for the hangings comes from yardage stores, from castoff blue jeans and from friends' scraps. For wood, Feldon haunts local lumberyards, where "I look for what is the exact opposite of what is considered the best commercial quality" lumber, she said. The wood she wants "has to have knotholes" and other irregularities.

In addition to her art, Feldon enjoys folk dancing, ethnic foods and folk music.

"One of the things you do when you get older, you tend to integrate everything," Feldon said. "That's what the tree of life has been to me--it's a central theme around which I organize my life."

An opening reception for "In Praise of Trees" will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, and the show will run through Dec. 2. "Six by Six," a concurrent exhibit at the Mills House Gallery in Garden Grove, also contains several of Feldon's tree of life artworks.

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