Peoria Tree of Life
with Richard Shook, artist
This year I’ve had the opportunity to watch my friend, Richard Shook, paint a large painting which will be hung in the church that his sister attends. It is an old small town church, nestled between farms in the quiet rolling prairie of Iowa. When I saw the beginnings of the painting, Dick told me that it was of the tree of life for a Methodist church. I was surprised; it was a mystery to me how a Methodist church could embrace a symbol that seemed so uniquely Mormon, considering Lehi’s vision. His explanation is worth sharing.
Methodists have a fairly broad tolerance of scriptural interpretation. What I found most interesting is that Mormons often forget that the Tree of Life is not limited to the Book of Mormon. So it may be harder for some Latter-Day Saints to connect with this imagery in terms of seeing common ground with the Methodists, than it would be for the Methodists to find common ground with Latter-Day Saints.
While the starting point for my work was the need to beautify the walls of the church, the congregation also had the problem of how to strengthen their relationships, in terms of their identity as a congregation, so that they could better care for each other despite their very small numbers. The arts are important and potent in doing this on a large or small scale. With this project I’ve gone much farther by putting actual church members into the painting, allowing for the creation of a very potent sense of personal meaning, relevance, and identification that will have significance as future generations view the painting.
In the Bible there is a phrase, “The apple of my eye,” which suggests something, or someone, that is precious to us or to the Lord. I think it’s used five times. First, in Deuteronomy to refer to the people of Jacob whom He found in a desert land, in a “waste howling wilderness.” Later, in the Psalms, there is this beautiful language that pleads that God would keep David as the “apple of his eye, hidden in the shadow of His wings.”
Let me tell you a little bit about my experiences with apple trees, one of which is part of the inspiration behind this painting. When I was young our neighbors had apple trees that grew around the foundation of their home. The fruit from the trees was small, green, and sour. I think you’d call them granny apples. They were a very tempting target for little pirate children like myself who saw an opportunity to make the easy climb up their short little trunks, that would even allow us to climb on our neighbor’s roof and get ever better access to the apples higher in their trees. So I call these trees trees of knowledge because I learned that property lines mean something and climbing on other people’s roofs to get apples isn’t a universal right.
We roamed quite a bit around our rural home. About half a mile down the road was a creek where we could fish and hike, where as long as we didn’t disturb the cattle or otherwise cause trouble, we could explore. There were interesting bugs, birds, animals, fish and trees. For a young man it was paradise, despite mosquito bites, allergies, and poisonous weeds. There were wondrous sights to behold and in the heat of the summer there was a very comforting shade along cool waters. I can remember that kind of day particularly because I had my sketch book open while I sat on the roots of an old tree, drawing the rusty iron truss bridge that spanned across the creek.
One day I wandered a little ways away from the creek and found a magnificent apple tree that had produced large and deliciously sweet fruit, which was pure and clear of any kind of corrupting worms or defects. I was impressed by how this tree owned its surroundings. Someone had obviously cared for this tree, but they weren’t able to harvest the fruit. There was no need to climb on the neighbor’s roof, the apples hung within my easy reach. This whole great apple tree was my tree of life, and you could say “the apple of my eye.”
Things change, of course, as we grow from precocious innocence through the difficulties of understanding who we are as an individual to becoming an accountable and responsible adult. A constant part of that process, a thread that has wound itself through my life, is the ideal form of this very place in my childhood memory. And so it was natural for me to use these experiences to enliven the painting.
I have shown the tree, the fruit of the tree, the water pouring forth, and the sense of the built environment (what we might think of in terms of Temple). There are a variety of traditions that suggest what the fruit of the The Tree of Life might have been, but I chose to use a less defined golden fruit and then allowed those pictured to freely partake of it. (The stained glass window I designed for the church’s entry door bore white fruit in the form of crystal prisms that allowed light to be cast into the room in rainbows.)
The most important symbols in this painting are those that bear witness of Jesus Christ and the significance of discipleship, although I restricted most of my symbols to the Old and New Testament (I’ll leave it to the viewer to find them). The symbolic context of the painting is derived primarily from Revelation and Ezekiel. But the complete cycle would include expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the crucifixion, and a full length figure of the resurrected Lord. (The Peoria UMC has expressed interest in the entire cycle of paintings and the next three will be more relevant to the LDS audience. They are also going to be large: 4’ x 6’. I’m excited about doing them!)
Overall, I hoped to show a feeling of peace in unity and fellowship in the painting. God reaches towards us, and he respects our efforts to feel after him, if perchance we may find Him, whatever our beliefs, God is no respecter of persons. He desires to comfort those who mourn, to bless the peacemakers, and those who have been persecuted for his name’s sake. He wants to lift us up a little bit more from our present station so we can be better and see further with more clarity.
Another interesting aspect of this painting is the personal process that the artist went through in working on the painting. This is an aspect of the artistic process that we rarely glimpse; I appreciate Dick’s willingness to share his artist’s heart.
When I started working on the painting I was fairly healthy and I was able to do some of the physical shop work required to make custom stretcher bars and stretch canvas. Very quickly (in a matter of a couple of weeks) my health declined to the point that I could hardly walk, let alone move canvas around or stand and paint for any length of time. It was very difficult for me to make this transition in my physical capacities, and I have to admit to going through a period of serious depression (at least for me) before I was able to adapt myself to the circumstances. This often meant working on the painting while it was upside down so I could sit comfortably as much as possible. I can stand some, but the more I stand or walk the worse my condition becomes, so I learned to ration my good moments to prepare for more difficult steps.
I absolutely felt God helping me through this process, all the way through. I’ve often questioned my direction in life in terms of my ability to provide for my family as an artist. The Spirit continues to tell me, “Keep doing your work.” I don’t know where He plans to take me; I just have to go with it and have hope in the very specific promises God has given me over the course of my life.
One final point: families are not perfect; congregations are not perfect. There’s an ongoing need to seek out the Lord, to renew our relationship to Him and each other. This is what I, a Latter-Day Saint, share in common with my friends at the Peoria UMC Church. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ and desire the fellowship of my brother and sisters with whom I am bound together. But I’ll tell you, and they’ll tell you: I can be a trial of faith to them and a royal pain in the rear. (I’ve learned to apologize often.) But I’m grateful that they welcome me back each week, shake my hand, smile, and offer me a place to sit with them under the shade of the tree near the cool water. In reaching out to another, it seems to me that I become a part of the very wood and fiber of the tree itself, joining with others who also become branches and leaves, who each in their own time bring forth a most delicious fruit.
- What symbols do you see in the painting, especially those which typify Christ and discipleship?
- Do you have any questions for the artist?
- How have the visual arts increased your understanding of the gospel?