Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Trees Become Storytellers in Colby Sanford’s Meyer Gallery Exhibit

Painting of a person standing on a hilltop surrounded by greenery, under a vast sky with a thin, white cloud streak.

Colby Sanford, “I Will Hold You High Above the Treetops,” acrylic, 36 in x 24 in

In a painting titled “I Will Hold You Above the Treetops,” a parent standing on the crest of a ridge embraces and lifts a child. A viewer might casually assume this is a father, but on closer approach, the pair could just as well be a mother and child. The artist makes many choices, but he leaves some for us to make. Either version could be right.

The only consistent subjects in the 16 new paintings by Colby Sanford at Meyer Gallery in Park City are trees. Occasionally, like in “Sunset Swings,” we see only a part of the trunk, which may well support the pair of swings on which two children, their backs to us and their bodies wreathed in light, can be seen. In the shady hollow of “Where the Creek was Still,” a child hunkers on her heels on the bank to place her hands in the water, while we spy on her through an overhanging tree we might have climbed. More often, though, trees are the occasions for the stories these richly detailed pictures tell. Never just settings, they perform essential tasks in them. Sanford has said, in effect, that while another painter might surround a formal portrait with props or scenery that inform viewers about the sitter, he creates elaborate places into which he inserts his figures.

There are several possible reading of some of these scenes, more than one of which may be simultaneously true. In “The Bridge,” three youths cross a creek by walking along a downed tree. It could be a lesson shared by siblings or friends, even a parable of cooperation, or a tale of adventure remembered. “Planted in the Shade” might be set in a park or a school, while the figure “planted” under the tree both invites and discourages approach. In “From Under the Heartwood,” the virtue of solitude moves to a farm and the idyll becomes more private, more personal. Perhaps the conclusion is that it doesn’t so much matter which reading the artist intended, or which the viewer takes away; what matters is that we realize the potential is always greater and deeper than our first impressions.

Gallery installation of several paintings depicting various outdoor scenes, including a child climbing a ladder, two children sitting on a tree branch, and a person sitting on the grass in a park.

Works by Colby Sanford at Meyer Gallery with, from left, “Climber,” “Ladybird Branch,” untitled sculpture, “Sweet Ones,” “Planted in the Shade” (above), “Giving Back.” Image by Geoff Wichert.


Painting of a dense forest with tall, slender trees and dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves.

Colby Sanford, “If I Were a Tree,” acrylic, 48 in x 96 in

In a few extreme cases, the figures are so distant and small they require, and reward, seeking out. In “Together Under the Willow,” they are almost in another world, so remote they might be overlooked but for the title, and the window through which they’re seen adds to that special feeling of inaccessibility. All this climaxes in the centerpiece of the show, “If I Were a Tree.” Here an entire grove is illuminated and captured by the setting sun, creating a deep perspective of shadows that converge toward the invisible sun, which may be responsible for the golden dots that are apparently in the viewer’s optics rather than among the trees. What is among them is the “I”—the speaker—who stands as still as a tree and evidently watches the sunset we cannot see. What else do trees witness in the long years in which they must only stand and watch?

It may gradually dawn on a viewer to ponder: are the people in these scenes there to justify the existence of nature, as the people of the Old Testament seemed to believe? Or does nature contribute to making these farmers and rural dwellers worthy of our attention? Close study suggests something else, which is that we are in the presence of a unity of life, a natural world that excludes or diminishes no legitimate part of the web of being. It’s a deeply, profoundly spiritual view, one that could equally belong to an LDS family or an environmental activist, and perhaps to those who are both. It’s not only the world inside the wooden frame that he wants to show complete and unified, but the wider world in which the artwork exists.

Painting of two children on swings, facing away from the viewer, with sunlight casting long shadows on the ground.

Colby Sanford, “Sunset Swings,” acrylic, 11 in x 14 in


If I Were a Tree: Colby Sanford, Meyer Gallery, Park City, through July 15

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