The Palm Tree’s Redemption
Immortalized in 42 panels at the new Lynden Pindling International Airport, John Cox’s single palm tree has an address. The artist first spotted the luxurious fronds of the majestic species while stuck on traffic at Go Slow Bend on West Bay Street. In blue skies or in gray, Cox recalled, the passerby’s view of the tree as it angled its head towards the heavens was unobstructed.
“You always have a clear picture of this tree, and on a very still calm day like it is today, where the sky is blue you see the tree in heightened colors,” said Cox, the sunlight pouring into a little office at his Popopstudios on a recent afternoon.
“On the days that it struck me most were days when it was overcast and there was some kind of system moving, and the tree would just be totally gusted to one side … and the tree, because there was no sunlight or anything, all the colors in the tree would just kind of disappear and it became like a silhouette in real life.”
Thus emerged Cox’s vision of the tree in all of its moods. Each panel peers down at viewers, as high as 30 feet at its height, offering a different view of the tree at Go Slow Bend. The fronds frolic and fritter like a song across the keys of a piano. The tune is a simple one, black and white as the colorless day that inspired the artist.
“I thought ‘how can we give some soul to these things,’” said Cox of one of the most common symbols of Caribbean utopia. “I kind of feel like they’ve been exploited and I was trying to redeem them in a way.”
One of four artists to receive commissions to create large-scale artwork for the new airport from the Nassau Airport Development company (NAD), Cox sought to produce work that spoke to “a sense of place” from the onset. He worked with a clear sense of the fact that the airport was not a gallery space.
“They kept drilling the statistics to us that 1 in every 100 people that pass the art in the airport look at it,” he remembered. “They know it’s there but it’s kind of like elevator music.”
Yet it was important for the pieces to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer who was willing to engage.
“I needed to make eye contact with the viewer,” he said. “For the few people that were going to actually come closer, I didn’t want to disappoint them as they got closer.”
Cox turned a single photograph into a meditation on the tree and on nature itself. After photographing the tree and developing his concept, the artist painted the panels over the course of eight months.
What appears as merely a black silhouette on a white surface at a distance becomes a layered process when deconstructed. Cox glued paper, some of which included structural drawings for some parts of the project, to each of the 3 x 3ft. plywood panels. He covered the collage surface in white paint then sanded it down before painting the silhouetted palm. He then coated the panels in a reflective sealant.
“They were tedious to paint,” said the artist. “You think of how many branches there are on the tree and how many shoots come out of each palm branch; it gets to be tricky.”
The search for individuality, from the black and white tone of the trees to the distinct nature of each rendering, brought challenges but clarity.
“There’s something about the repetition of painting them that gets spiritual after awhile,” said Cox. “You start to look at trees in a different way.”
By THEA RUTHERFORD
Guardian National Correspondent
The Nassau Guardian
Related article and images: Airport Artwork