by Len Lear and Lou Mancinelli
We have done countless articles in the Local on artists in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Wyndmoor, etc., over the years, but none is quite like Richard Metz, of Erdenheim, whose work has been on exhibit since Sept. 12 at Allens Lane Art Center and will remain there until Oct. 24. (On Friday, Oct.17, and Saturday, Oct. 18, there will be receptions from 7-9 p.m.)
Whereas other artists paint with oil, watercolors, etc., on canvas, walls, paper, even on the sides of buildings, Metz, 55, has often painted primitive images on old trees. Metz is a professionally trained artist whose 12 “tree spirits” were painted in the paths of woods among yellow and brown fallen leaves at Abington Art Center’s Sculpture Park.
“Art on trees is intended to be a subversive gesture, to create work that can challenge the reactionary bent of the art world,” said Metz in an earlier interview as he walked with a Chestnut Hill Local reporter through the paths at the art center. The light reflecting through the trees played a fine contrast against the colors of autumn and Metz’ intentional “childish creatures.”
When he started doing tree paintings, Metz snuck into the woods in eastern Montgomery County and used colors he mixed himself. His goal was to “get closer to the process” used by the old masters he had “read so much about in art history books.” So he began using substances like ground charcoal, indigo (made from crushed indigo plants) or the spice turmeric (for a yellow tint) with eggs to create a colored liquid substance that would bind to the rough barky surface. (The Allens Lane exhibit has characters like those he painted on trees but made into prints.)
Metz, who has taught art at Abington High School for 23 years, has seen his tree spirit paintings at Abington Art Center fade away, but over the past three years he has created tree creature installations in Nova Scotia, the Olympic peninsula and Seattle through grant and residency programs.
By the way, those who believe that Metz’ tree art is defacing nature should know that since they are made with pigments and eggs, the images decay and decompose within six to 12 months. The use of the eggs as a binder is strong enough to preserve the work for several months, but then they begin to gradually fade away and finally deteriorate altogether. The work is anti-materialist and anti-consumerist and to some extent a critique of the function of art as a commodity. It is not possible to own these works of art.
Metz has richly earned his reputation as a maverick in the art world. In 2007, for example, he wrote: “Today, in the art world, especially in New York, sometimes stunning visual art can be purchased for great sums of money. The titans of industry and finance destroy others and the environment to attain their wealth. Then they can purchase not only beautiful art works but the art world’s praise as a benefactor. The art world thus becomes complicit in the destruction of our society and our planet.”
For years Metz has grappled with the issue of how an artist can be true to himself and his vision without selling out and yet still make a decent living.
Last week he told us, “If one studies the Renaissance, it is obvious that the powerful gilded their image with the works of great artists as they engaged in terrible deeds. Today it is more apparent. For example, the Koch brothers are financing the new fountain outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York while making billions in the energy industry, denying climate change and financing politicians who advance their agenda. Yet another example would be Exxon/Mobil’s support for PBS while continuing to destroy the climate.”
Metz, who received a Masters in Fine Art from the Maine College of Art in 2000, in addition to his tree art has spent a lot of time in the woods gathering and identifying leaves, seed pods and plant roots and using these items both directly and pictorially in his studio work. He says it is one way to enjoy and further his knowledge about the properties and balances of our ecosystem. He said the goal of his new prints on exhibit at Allens Lane is to embody what might be the spirits of the forests and fields he has wandered through.
“They are not like conventional nature works,” he said, “but more icons, or drawings. The style comes from my love and study of expressionist woodcuts, alternative comics and the strange otherworldly shapes of the plants themselves. These works express my connection with the natural world, but also pay homage to the works of the Iroquois mask makers who saw the spirits of the forest … I cut the wood blocks and linoleum by hand, print them by hand and make some of the watercolors from powdered pigments. This process allows me to have a greater degree of control over the work and my effect on the environment.”
(Metz and his wife, Cecilia Dougherty, 58, have two sons,Samuel, 24, and Harry, 22.)