Why This Art: ‘Leaves’

Multimedia artist Perri Lynch Howard sees ash, light, and wisdom in Leaves.

gloria tamerre petyarre’s leaves, a 13 foot long aboriginal australian masterpiece, compels perri lynch howard to consider the spiritual and environmental realities of a place when painting landscapes
© Copyright Agency; Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2022, IMAGE COURTesY OF Seattle Art Museum

I first laid eyes on Leaves when it was on view at the Seattle Art Museum in 2007. The dynamic patterning and implied motion within the lateral expanse of the painting were mesmerizing. It called to something deep within me to explore further, drawing me onward, like the horizon itself.

I was an emerging artist, and my life was in deep transition. I interpreted the title, Leaves, as the verb of departure, as in “she leaves.” This painting was telling me that it was time to go wandering, to see, hear, and feel the world beyond my familiar surroundings, and to integrate place-based inquiry into my creative work.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

But the painting, to the artist, Gloria Tamerre Petyarre, who died in 2021, was not about mobility but a visual description of leaves overhead, that rustle of shade that reduces the searing heat of Australia’s Northern Territory to something tolerable. When the sun reclines, a shadowed space emerges below the tree canopy, and women gather there, swap stories, and sort seeds, processing the essential ingredients that feed their community.

When the Seattle Art Museum reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown, I masked up and revisited Leaves, which is now in the museum’s permanent collection. It felt like being in the presence of an old friend, one who understands who you are and how you are, in a way beyond words. But so much had changed.

The painting evoked memories of the terrible 2019–2020 bushfires in Australia. I wondered whether Petyarre’s leaves were still rustling overhead or had been scorched to the ground. Given the black-and-white palette, and the dire truths of climate change, I gazed at the painting and saw only ash.

Recently, I again visited Leaves, paying particular attention to how this work might inform my current body of paintings, Frequencies. This new series explores the passage of light, sound, and signal through environments suffering from rapid climate change—an investigation into the phenomenology of place.

I remain transfixed by Leaves, a monumental work informed by totemic geography, dreamtime, and ancestral wisdom rooted in the land. The piece is an important touchstone that I will return to again and again. I wonder where it will lead me next.•

Perri Lynch Howard’s work explores the relationship between human perception and sense of place through painting, sculpture, printmaking, and sound installations.
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