It might seem flip to start a review of “Treeline,” Kent Krugh’s (American, 1955- ) rather magnificent exhibition of 22 black-and-white photographs* of the Angel Tree, the largest tree east of the Mississippi, with the old chestnut that “you can’t the see the forest for the trees.” But in this case, the Quercus virginiana, an evergreen oak tree AKA southern live oak, borders on being literally big enough to hide the forest.

It measures a “modest,” as the Fairfield, OH, photographer describes it, 65’ tall, but its trunk is nearly 26” in diameter, and its canopy covers 17,000-square feet. Its largest limb is 11.25’ in circumference and 89’ long. It dominates the landscape.

Krugh documents the tree, shooting fragments that viewers can mentally assemble into a whole rather than the entire tree. One photo does come close, but the canopy is just cropped by the edge of the picture.

In his artist statement, Krugh wrote, “To walk beneath this awesome tree is to enter God’s living room. It is to ponder just how much life is lived inside the arms of this created living thing. The symmetry, the flowing rivers of wood, the gravity of the trunk draws me to touch the tree. To make a connection.”

Krugh’s carefully and sensitively composed photographs communicate the magic of the tree, whose name comes from its 18th-century owner, Justus Angel, not the celestial being. However, local folklore has it that ghosts of former slaves appear as angels around the tree.

Tonally Krugh’s photos are exquisite with no white whites and no inky blacks. Veils of pale gray wash out the backgrounds to create an ethereal atmosphere around this imposing tree, effectively obscuring the “forest.”

The Angel Tree’s limbs reach out like arms, ending in thin branches that, like fingers, could grasp anything that comes too close. When Krugh points his camera skyward in “Angel Oak #15,” these branches are silhouetted as the tree’s undersized (2” to 5”) leathery leaves screen the sky.

The charcoal-y darks of Krugh’s photos define the richness of the Angel Tree’s trunk, boughs, and branches. Balancing light and dark, the bark looks like the gnarly furrowed skin of some creature. The trunk, that seems made up of several trunks melded together, looks like thick legs. The tree’s roots, sinking into the earth, could be the toes of some giant reptile or claws of a mammoth bird, suggesting that the Angel could just walk away, thundering through the woods.

Krugh’s photographs are affecting emotionally and rife with symbolism. Religious scholar and student of mythology J. F. Bierlein wrote about the Angel Tree in his 1994 book Parallel Myths, “The tree naturally lends itself to rich mythological symbolism. Its roots reach deep into the earth, the mother of many myths; its branches reach high to touch ‘father’ sky. Unlike any other living thing, the tree continues to grow throughout its lifetime and has a span of hundreds even thousands of years. This makes the tree a potent symbol of immortality.”

Appropriately the Angel Tree may be one of the oldest living organisms east of the Mississippi, perhaps 1500 years old. It was damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, but survived and continues to grow. But as strong as the Angel Tree appears, it needs a little help from man. Slender metal rods and what look like 4” x 4”s support the lower branches.

In 2008, Krugh “discovered” the Angel Tree when he and his family were vacationing on Folly Beach, near Charleston, SC. The tree on Johns Island, 10 miles southwest of Charleston, is a tourist attraction, and struck him as a subject for his camera. He visited and photographed it on June 30th, and returned two days later with his family for another session.

Although Krugh was not aware of it at the time, there are parallels with the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927), evidenced by the Museum of Modern Art’s 1972 exhibition, titled simply “Atget’s Trees.”

Krugh is a “fan” of Atget. In a July 9, 2011, e-mail to the author, he wrote, “When I first saw his photographs of trees, especially the tree trunks, I gasped inside thinking ‘Wow, I have taken that very same photograph.’ His work resonates with me deeply.”

In the same e-mail, Krugh shared that he has a particular affinity with trees, having “always interacted with trees in a personal way. Sounds strange, but it is true. Early memories are filled with trees: purple bottoms of feet from playing under the mulberry trees; my grandfather lighting a torch to burn out the tent caterpillars in the large walnut tree near the house; cicadas singing in the old silver maple trees in front of my grandmother’s front porch; carving my initials in the smooth, gray bark of a huge beech in the nearby woods; listening to the cracking of ice-coated limbs after a freezing rain; and stealing apples from a neighbor’s orchard.”

It would be difficult to find an artist who relates to the Angel Tree as Krugh does, but he gives the viewer a chance to share that vision.

-Karen S. Chambers

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