The paintings in Adam Wolpert's San Luis Obispo Museum of Art exhibit have all the facets of good portraiture. Highly detailed and perfectly angled, they capture the spirit of the subject.
His portrait subject, however, is not a human; it's the grand, majestic oak tree. Having done both human portraiture and nature landscape painting throughout his artistic career, Wolpert said that his exhibit, Great Oaks, is almost a cross between the two: looking at a singular piece of nature with the same sustained interest that a portrait painter would give their human subject.
"I feel like in this day and age, humans are far too anthropocentric, the way we are always focusing on ourselves," Wolpert told New Times. "I think I'm more interested in doing a portrait of an oak tree than a person."
Wolpert's highly realistic paintings each depict a single oak tree, in a variety of seasons and angles but always up close, as one would for a human portrait. The works feel familiar in their landscape-like subject matter, but the focus on singular parts of that landscape is what sets the collection apart. The level of attention and detail that Wolpert gives to each of the trees on his large canvases adds a point of view that would be missed in the typical, widely framed landscape piece.
In order to create such intimately detailed oak tree portraits, Wolpert said his process involves getting acquainted with the tree almost as one would with a human subject.
"First, it's really about finding the tree," Wolpert said of his artistic process. "A lot of it is searching for the tree, finding the tree, sitting with the tree, and observing it throughout the day—seeing all the different kinds of light that come from morning to evening ... seeing all the different angles."
Once Wolpert encounters his subject from enough perspectives—almost like a scientist gathering pieces of data—he starts to see the big picture emerge, and he takes to the canvas.
"Eventually over a period of days, that all comes together with ... a mixture of all of these different variables: the time of day, the angle, and maybe most important, the distance that I'm standing from the tree," he said. "It's almost like a dance."
Unlike many other artists who work en plein air—outdoors—Wolpert takes his full-sized canvas with him out to the field.
"I usually do about a week of drawing on-site, and then about a week of painting en plein air before I go to the studio," he said. "I work on them for quite some time in the studio, and closer to the end I go back out to the tree. It's a multifaceted process."
- Photo Courtesy Of Adam Wolpert
- THE MAN BEHIND THE TREES Adam Wolpert's Great Oak exhibit combines his experience with portraiture and landscape painting into one.
While other artists will paint a small study outdoors that they reference back to while painting larger in the studio, Wolpert said he prefers to get the details he sees before him straight onto what will eventually be the final product.
"I actually take these big 4- by 6-foot canvases out," he said.
Wolpert said that he hopes his exhibit will allow the viewer to become closely familiar with oak trees, to an extent that most people aren't typically able to.
"I have the privilege in my life to spend hundreds of hours staring at one tree," Wolpert said. "If I have an aspiration, it would be that somebody might be inspired by witnessing another human being doing that—to look a little more deeply at these trees and get the gifts that they give you when you give them your full attention."
As the founder of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County, Wolpert also hopes his audience will think "like an ecologist" by placing themselves as "a part of, not apart from, nature."
"The exhibit celebrates our capacity to come into relationship, even deep relationship, with some small part of nature," Wolpert said. "There's something healing about witnessing nature as beautiful and powerful and integrated that ultimately can inspire us, because we're a part of nature. I guess it depends how open you are."
Though many of the oak trees in Wolpert's exhibit are ones he finds in Sonoma County where he is based, he said that SLO locals can find trees just as beautiful in their own backyards.
"The hills around San Luis Obispo are just filled with these trees," Wolpert said. "It might make people stop and look around a little bit more." Δ
Arts Writer Malea Martin is admiring California's great oaks. Send arts story tips to email@example.com.