Essay - "Roots" by Claudette Dean 2021: Featured on The Stillness Within Blog by Raquel Bravo, April 2021

I have always had a fascination with symbols. As a child growing up Roman Catholic, I was captivated by the mysticism of the trinity, and the cross was the first of many symbols to be etched on my heart, and stored in my consciousness.

This fascination with symbolism deepened and broadened through my university years. While studying French Literature, I was introduced to eighteenth century poets, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire. The work of these poets was different––dark and melancholic, it revealed the deepest, darkest aspects of their psyches. There was a certain intimacy I hadn’t felt before while reading poetry, and it made me acutely aware of the power and potency of symbolic language.

When I studied the teachings of surrealist writer and poet Andre Breton––a proponent of stream of consciousness automatic writing, my awareness of the aforementioned power expanded to include the realm of the subconscious. Concurrently, I was introduced to the surrealist art of Salvador Dali and the world of symbolic imagery.

After university, as life unfolded and I became a wife, a mother, and part of the work force, my intrigue with symbols lay buried for a while. It reemerged with a purpose when creativity showed up as a saving grace at a pivotal point in my life, and I began a journey into the world of visual art.

As an artist, my creative impulse has always quickened in that space between the known and the unknown. I discovered that in this space––where preconceived ideas and boundaries naturally dissolve––images organically emerge from the subconscious, and with experience and time, I have uncovered and developed my own symbolic language. One of the most memorable comments I’ve had about my work came from someone I admire as a spiritual being and an environmental activist. He remarked that experiencing my work was like taking a walk in the forest.

I was born and raised in a small town on the north shore of Lake Huron, called Blind River. The main industry, and truly the heart of the town, for the years I was growing up, was an impressive lumber mill. Our house faced the mill yard––the smell of white pine, the buzzing of machinery, tall piles of lumber as far as the eye could see, the noon and five o’clock whistles, and men walking to and from work everyday, are smells, sounds, and sights from my childhood––trees are in my DNA, and they are indeed a recurring symbol in my work.

Back in 2005, I had been painting and exhibiting in group or tandem shows for ten years, and I was feeling ready to set off on my own. At the time, I was painting for a two-woman show called Timeline. My body of work for this show was a type of visual autobiography, and Roots, the painting I am featuring here, is a pivotal piece from that collection. A self portrait of sorts, it is layered with symbolism both conscious and subconscious.

As we observe the painting, we notice that the central figure is a woman surrealistically portrayed as part of a tree. Her posture is one of surrender, as her outstretched arms form the horizontal line of a cross, and her direct, unapologetic gaze says here I am, for better or for worse. Her hair pulled into two braids, reminiscent of serpents, wrap around her bare arms and drape down until they merge with the tree roots. Among the roots, are ghostly images––they are my birth family. On the left you have my Mom and Dad on their wedding day, and on the right, you have me, my brother, Roland, and my sister, Rose, as young children. A ten step stairway which leads to a blue sky is carved through the bottom center of the tree, and a low wall separates the foreground from a colorful dynamic background.

The obvious symbolism is that the woman is like a tree. She is grounded by her roots, where she finds strength (hair), wisdom (serpents), and support and nourishment (her birth family, and her past). Her posture of surrender was intentional on my part, but using the cross as a symbol to convey surrender happened subconsciously, and was no doubt conjured up from my catholic background. But the symbolism, as I discovered in my subsequent research, is even more significant––the cross represents The Tree of Life and the Tree of Nourishment.

The meaning of other elements in the composition such as the color and movement of the background, the wall, and the stairway, has deepened since 2005. At the time, my intention was for the dynamic sky to represent the present, and for the stairway to represent the path to the future. I hadn’t given much thought to the wall, and I had basically painted it for composition purposes. When I look at Roots today, the wall is pivotal. It separates the realm of the physical from the dynamic realm of the unknown. The stairway leads to a portal open to the other side, and the woman is the link.

Roots garnered much attention and interest while it was exhibited, but it was not for sale. I had it proudly displayed in our dining room with the intention of keeping it in the family.

As a matter of interest, I did set off on my own after Timeline. The following year, I held my first solo exhibition, Across A Sea of Dreams, at the museum in Blind River as part of the town’s centennial celebrations, and shortly afterward I held my second one-woman show, Lumiere, in my current hometown of Freeport, Bahamas. It is a show I now refer to as my awakening exhibition.

At the end of August 2019, Hurricane Dorian, classified as the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the Caribbean, hit our island of Grand Bahama. My husband and I and our little dog, Mo, rode out the storm huddled upstairs in my former studio for two days without food, and only a little water, while 200 m.p.h. winds howled, and ten feet of raging ocean swept through the first floor of our home. When it was over, everything downstairs was gone including Roots––swept out with the flood waters and nowhere to be found.

I’m grateful that we survived the storm when so many did not. In the aftermath, as I looked around at the devastated landscape, and I saw the mutilated trees, I viewed them as brave soldiers who had fought the battle, and were left to perish on the battlefield.

There is great symbolism in the catastrophe called Hurricane Dorian. As a result of so much having been swept away, I have more easily been able to let go of what was no longer serving me, to be present, and to focus on becoming more of the link I believe I came here to be.

And today, the trees are green again. 

Claudette Dean