Espalier: A day-to-day imaginary by Lizzie Lloyd.
The relationship between trees and humans through history has been framed as one of power brokering and paradox. ‘We’ve cast trees in roles,’ writes Richard Mabey, ‘negotiated with them’ (2007, p.6). We have extended votive offerings to appease tree spirits, we have sung to cider orchards to ask for good harvests, we have promoted ourselves as stewards for their regeneration either as crops, to hold firm the ground beneath them, as decorative flourishes, as status symbols or as evidence of colonial power. We prune, thin, coppice and pollard. And in a bid to accommodate capitalist desire we have razed them at alarming rates. As providers of food, shelter and of course oxygen – for animals and humans alike – trees are ‘the architectural climax of evolution, scaffolding for the rest of terrestrial life’ (Mabey, 2007, p.7).
Valda Jackson and Rodney Harris’s most recent public work is formed of a single tree, captured in an unspecified season and made of fourteen tones of clay brick that stretches partway along the length of a new building. The position of its trunk, bolt upright, is determined by the presence of four large windows between which it is sandwiched. Only four branches stem from its central axis, more or less symmetrically reaching horizontally left and right. The work is called Espalier, a reference to trees that are trained, by careful tying and assiduous pruning, to grow into a particular shape to encourage greater production of fruit, to fit into a particular space or as decorative structure. This espalier is a city tree: solitary, regulated and contained. But then again, Jackson and Harris’s Espalier cuts a mighty figure, reaching to a lofty ten metres, with a wingspan of sixteen.
Espalier is loosely based on the idea of an apple tree but really it is the stuff of curious and inventive fiction. An impossible medley of leaves, fruit and more bud from its oversized outstretched branches. Among other things there are apples, grapes, pineapples, pomegranates, cherries, pears, figs and sprigs of an assortment of leaves nestled here and there. The tree is home to a violin, a pair of ribboned ballet shoes, a teapot, books, cups, headphones, toys, bunting, paper doll chains and an array of different species of birds. I picture Jackson and Harris dreaming up their community of unlikely tree inhabitants. Some of the objects have personal significance to them, a rag doll that recalls the nursery rhyme ‘Miss Polly had a Dolly’ which Jackson’s father sang to her and she in turn sang to her children. During one of our conversations, Harris points to a duo of fruit – a custard apple (Jacksons’s favourite) and a Cox’s Orange Pippin (a stand in for Harris who grew up on a Somerset cider farm): ‘This is me and Valda’, he laughs, to which Jackson endearingly rolls her eyes. Other motifs were developed through community visits, workshops, and consultation: the ducks in the tree for example are based on Daffy and Dilly who would return to the area year on year; the teapot is modeled on the one used in the community hall, and so on. Thus, Espalier becomes an assembly of individual and collective memories united through the growth of a tree, a composite of a multiplicity of experiences that, in their sharing, are merged.
Espalier is appropriately placed against the wall of a building, the kind of place you’d expect to find one in a garden. Tied to, or trained to grow against, a wall or other structure the word espalier derives from the Latin spatula meaning shoulder which is the root of spalliera and spalla, Italian for support and shoulder respectively (Partridge, 2009, p.658). The fact that the form of an espalier tree depends upon some kind of supporting structure feels significant, given that the wall against which Espalier ‘grows’ is that of a community hall, part of Peabody St Johns Hill housing development near London’s Clapham Junction. The etymology of the word espalier, linking to both support and shoulder, engenders Jackson and Harris’s tree with a feeling of the bodily and the architectural become enmeshed. In fact, this espalier is inextricably bound to the slate blue-grey wall behind. Modelled in the same brick clay that covers the rest of the building, wall-ness and tree-ness combine: the tree appears to be either protruding from or pressing into the wall; the wall appears to be either ejecting or subsuming the tree. It is unclear which is the active and which the passive force in this relationship.
The site of the work on the wall of a community centre is noteworthy in relation to the quiet cacophony of motifs that appear in Espalier. These objects and lifeforms speak of a mixture of wistful childhood innocence, hope for the future and fond memories of raising young children. There is a romanticism at play for sure. This ‘life tree’, as Harris calls it, stands for an upbringing characterised by love, warmth and care, a childhood of play, engagement and comfort. It is heart-rending to consider in the context of a country at the receiving end of 15 years of austerity measures and a Covid pandemic: public services at breaking point, unprecedented public sector strikes; children arriving at school too hungry to learn; homes kept dangerously cold for fear of the cost of heating bills. The homeliness evoked in Espalier seems worlds away. Does that make it out of touch? No. All too often we hear arguments about culture and the arts being a nice-to-have rather than a necessity. Recall then education secretary Gavin Williams’s 2021 recommendation that the government ‘reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS... high-cost STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]’ at the expense of art and design higher education courses, deemed of lower-value. What Jackson and Harris’s tree signals is a celebration of the basic value of music, dance, books and play, alongside birdsong and the sweet delights of fresh fruit.
Nevertheless, it comes with a kind of melancholy. As a brick relief, its form and outlines are not wholly distinct; they merge with the surrounding wall: it is neither sculpture, nor architecture, nor drawing, or perhaps it is all of these things at once. Bruce Reynolds calls contemporary artworks that make use of relief, a ‘transitional zone […] characterised by dialectics, and the coexistence, reconciliation or synthesis of opposites’ (2018, p.IV). Relief constitutes a ‘physical extension of the pictorial into the material world’ but which remains ‘wedded with the wall—attached to an architectural and social context in a coexistence of spatial types’ (Reynolds, 2018, p.1). Jackson and Harris’s pictorial plane of sculpted clay brick is a response to a combination of their own experiences and their understanding of the experiences of the people who will live with their life tree. But the relationship between their pictorial imagery and its architectural and social context is ambiguous. Espalier appears variously to swell from or be absorbed back into the wall, depending on the time of day, the angle of the sun, the degree of cloud cover and the surrounding street light. This quality of uncertainty hints at an important ambivalence: it might be looking back with longing, forward with promise, or is it a gentle cautioning? What happens to individuals and communities when life’s pleasures and enjoyments are de-prioritised in favour of the capitalist promise of endless progress and financial growth. In a 2020 interview Tendai Mutambu describes Espalier as ‘defying the harshness of modernist architecture’ and ‘breathing life into these things.’ It is notable that this life-breath is made from objects that signify play, leisure and social activities. Harris, in this interview, situates Espalier in the context of surrealism in architecture which offers the possibility of thinking about ‘the real, the more than real, the unreal and the fake’. Whether or not Espalier is driven by a rose-tinged nostalgia for times past, subdued resistance to the status quo, a utopian optimism for the future or a mixture of these things it amounts indisputably to, as Mutambu puts it ‘the potential for things to be otherwise’.
But what is Jackson and Harris’s ‘otherwise’? According to Lola Olufemi, in her Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, ‘the way we talk about life and living, the language we use, builds a kind of structure that turns the horizon (that point where potentiality meets the substance of our reality) into a mirage’ (20021, p.43). In Jackson and Harris’s hands bricks and mortar are not just the stuff of practical house building but the basis for conjuring ghostly projections. Bricks become not just, but more than. They take bricks beyond their familiar use as building material, a means to erect physical boundaries or provide shelter. Jackson and Harris see the confines of a wall as a space for the potential of expansion, a lens through which to imagine the world, its past, present and future, differently. They soften the solidity of a wall’s edges, appearing to penetrate its exterior plane so that images and motifs swell, breaking its surface. It is not just pictorial but textural. In the past they have rendered soft folds of hanging fabric – dresses, curtains and lines of drying washing – that are draped, pleated or crumpled, entirely un-bricklike. Jackson and Harris imagine trees as providers of more than oxygen, and play as more than a frivolous distraction, and bricks as more than raw components of walls, and walls as more than devices to divide, enclose or restrict movement. Espalier, then, is the promise of entirely ordinary magical offerings.
Lizzie Lloyd, 2023
Mabey, R. (2007) Beechcombings: The Narrative of Trees. London: Chatto and Windus
Olufemi, L. (2021) Experiments in Imagining Otherwise. London: Hajar Press.
Reynolds, B. (2018) The Persistence of Relief Sculpture in Contemporary. PhD, Queensland College of Art. https://research-repository.griffith.edu.au/bitstream/handle/10072/382698/Reynolds%2C%20Bruce_Final%20Thesis_redacted.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y [accessed September 2022].
Harris R. (2020) Behind the Scenes Studio Visits: Rodney Harris, with Tendai Mutambu, https://www.spikeisland.org.uk/programme/events/behind-the-scenes-studio-visits-rodney-harris/ [accessed September 2022].
Jackson V. and Harris R. (2022 and 2023) interviewed during studio visit by Lizzie Lloyd
Parkinson G. notification to the Office for Students by the Secretary of State for Education to set terms and conditions for the allocation by OfS of Strategic Priorities Grant funding for the 2021/22 Academic Year https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/0e833c6f-c355-4743-8953-071bbe9b1518/ts-and-cs-on-recurrent-funding-19-july.pdf [accessed 10 February 2023].
Partridge, E. (2009) Origins: An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. London and New York: Routledge.