The Montreal Gazette reviews THE NATIVE TREES OF CANADA

“Painting The Native Trees of Canada” / The Montreal Gazette / Bronwyn Chester / December 21, 2010

It began with Garry. Garry oak, that is. The sort of oak that you'll never find around here, not even at the Montreal Botanical Gardens where they try out all species of oak from the temperate world.

It's too cold here, but not too cold in British Columbia where Garry is the only native oak. South of the border, they call it Oregon white oak, but they're both Quercus garryana, a stubby, scrubby, V-shaped oak that grows in a thin strip along the Pacific south from Vancouver Island to Southern California.

It was Garry's leaf that caught Leanne Shapton's attention that fateful day in 2009 when she spied a 1956 edition of Native Trees of Canada in a second-hand bookstore in Toronto. Leafing through the black and white plates, Shapton, an illustrator, author and publisher, stopped at the Garry oak spread. There was something in the friendly, mitten-like shape of the leaf that clinched her decision to buy the book.

Later, using ink and sample pots of house paint, Shapton painted the leaf and 83 others of the 172 species in the book as a Christmas present to her boyfriend. Fortunately, her boyfriend has agreed to share his present.

Speaking with Shapton last month at the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore where her almost textless book, The Native Trees of Canada, was launched, she told me that she'd painted strictly from the photographs. "I used the book for reference and let my vague ideas of the leaf and its tree dictate the colours of the pieces," she said.

Shapton's favourite tree is the Manitoba maple, and the tenderness she feels for this arbre mal-aime is evident in the painting of the fruit you see here, which is red on white in the original. It makes you take a second look at all those shimmering chains of Manitoba maple keys now rustling in Montreal alleys and neglected gardens.

My favourites are Shapton's renditions of the mountain alder, the wild apple and the silver maple. But there's something to appreciate in almost all the paintings. In fact, my only criticism of this book is the lack of white space and the almost complete absence of text.

Since the book's publication, Shapton has written a few articles on the history and process of the painting, and, had that information been integrated into the book, it would have been stronger.

I, too, have that same fourth edition of Native Trees of Canada that inspired Shapton. A work of beauty it is not, particularly in comparison to the most recent, full-coloured, 1995 edition, which goes by the name: Trees in Canada (the change in title allowed the inclusion of common exotic and naturalized trees). Comparing the two editions only makes one appreciate the progression of this long-evolving book.

Conceived originally as a pamphlet of 100 trees for forestry students and lay people, Native Trees of Canada was published in 1917 by the Canadian Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources. The current edition -which features 300 tree species that are not only meticulously and attractively photographed but also illustrated and mapped -and Shapton's The Native Trees of Canada would be well placed beneath many a balsam or Fraser fir tree this Christmas season.

Read previous columns about the Manitoba maple, silver maple, apple and balsam fir trees, and link to Leanne Shapton's paintings in colour at foretmontreal. blogspot.com

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