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Where do trees go after they die?

"Decadent Decay," local artist Kat Ely's exhibit in the Sarah Doyle Gallery, presents a few theories.

Ely extracts beauty from the process of decay, mysterious in its location between life and death, she wrote in her artist statement.

This ambiguity is particularly visible in the plant kingdom. Animals — with some notable exceptions — are easy to classify as alive or dead. You look, if you dare, at a creature or a corpse. But if dead trees were called corpses, nature would suddenly seem morose.

Plants rot more gracefully, more gradually. At what moment does a tree stop dying and become officially dead?

With "A Tree's Ghost," Ely creates an intermediate stitch in time that renders a tree part dead, part living. In reality, the piece, like the rest of the exhibit, is made of glass and metal — materials neither alive nor dead. But in appearance, the last, most inner remains of a tree wither away inside an encapsulating crystal, which has replaced its former bark. This wood's decay is a process of revelation and of disclosure.

"Ant Trail in a Tree," "Glass Ant Trails" and "Nine Miles" recreate the indents left in dead trees by their inhabitants and feeders. These trees' decay is a process of giving, recalling the popular children's book "The Giving Tree." Even after they have stopped generating oxygen and bearing fruit, the organisms Ely depicts provide food and shelter for insects and other beings. It is sometimes said that people outlive their usefulness, but with trees, it's the opposite. They are useful long after they live.

Though the glass and metal sculptures of bark are the most conceptually rich, flowers of the same medium are more visually poignant. "Weeping Dandelion," wilted with glossy glass beads hanging from its neck, mourns the loss of its fellow field-dwellers inhabiting the graveyard gallery. On the opposite side of the room, two sunflowers bolster a delicate glass case of wisps of a dandelion at a different stage in its life cycle. "Three Wishes" displays the hope this flower carries on children's breath after its yellow has faded.

The paradox of a room full of sights associated with life and the imminent advent of spring, yet at the same time addressing mortality, is evident in the crisp contrast of each piece's shadow on the surrounding white wall.

These interpretations, though, came only with careful consideration of Ely's alleged goals. Simply seeing the exhibit, it was difficult to say what it was about.

Don't get me wrong — it's a mark of success when a viewer derives meaning from artwork that the artist did not mean to convey. After all, looking at abstract art is an activity fit for a solopsist — one's impressions of an image matter far more than the purpose for which it was created. The problem occurs, though, when the viewer extracts less from a piece than the artist intended. Much of "Decadent Decay" is overly literal. It is hard to read anything into "Ganoderma Applanatum," a sculpture of a tree trunk with an unidentified glass figure attached to it, other than, well, tree-trunk-with-glass-attached-to-it.

But to return to the original question, where do trees go after they die? They don't go — they stay. They nestle in forests and unfold, offering animals shelter. They reveal pieces of themselves unknown during their lifetimes.  

And as for the issue of the afterlife, humans will be left to create the remaining folklore. Plants don't care enough to ask. Perhaps people have something to learn from giving trees. They aren't scared to die — they know their usefulness will outlive them.

"Decadent Decay" runs through March 24 at the Sarah Doyle Women's Center Gallery.


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