Story: The Heart of Balaam's Wood

The Heart of Balaam's Wood

By Frank Balaam

When I was a young man, I remember sitting in the gardens near the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.  It was a glorious day, bursting with life and I had just experienced my first communication with a large powerful abstract expressionist painting by Alan Davie.  I was exalted by the painting, yet outside the gallery I found myself naively disturbed by the sight of a blackbird tugging a worm from the ground a few yards from my park bench.  I quickly looked away from the cruel drama of survival and I gazed above me into the glorious canopy of an ancient oak tree, so huge it must have been a seedling at the time of the late Renaissance.  My enjoyment of life was again disturbed by the realization that the lower, older leaves of the tree were turning brown as they desperately sought to find those gems of sustaining light filtering through the burgeoning new growth.  

The concept of individuality desperately striving for equality and recognition has stuck with me my entire life and is found in all my paintings, even the forest-covered canvas world I now create.  Consequently, every leaf and every brushstroke has its own dedicated area of pure white canvas.  It doesn’t compete for space or have its brilliant, individually coloured shape diminished by interfering overpainting or blending.  Each leaf, each life, each colour evolves across the canvas, while interacting with other colours in lively contrast and harmony rather than experiencing the competitive conflict and dominance we encounter in our real world.  

I have often looked upon art as if it were a bench in the park, a place where I could sit and contemplate the parade of life and my place in it.  In the past, my art studies of American society led me to paint portraits of the disenfranchised as well as celebrities.  The “famous” paintings financed my studies of individuals who are considered less socially significant.  A portrait honours a life and allows us to focus on a single moment in time, which resonates over time and can help us remember the contributions of those who may easily be forgotten.  I had concentrated on people because we are the bulls in the china shop of earth and I hoped my paintings would offer a useful social perspective.  We are such celebrity hounds and we always focus on the big and bright, yet I suspect our “Achilles' Heel” will be ignoring the commonplace.  So in the same way that my portraits of humans explored the human condition, it is now my life’s focus to celebrate ordinary trees and to call attention to both their vulnerability as well as their powerful resolve for renewal.

My artistic focus from portraits to forests began in 2005 when my landlord’s negligent arson destroyed the historic hotel, which housed my gallery and burned over a thousand of my paintings and drawings.  Like the forests, I could do nothing but stand and watch the approaching destruction that had been senselessly unleashed.  I feel that my growing affinity with the forest, which is vulnerable to the irresponsible acts of domineering entities, is another form of self reflection and a way for me to positively reconnect with the world.  My forests also represent a simple reminder of the growing battle we must face against egocentrism and the world it has built.  In my own small way, I hope my art will help me be a caretaker of trees by creating in paint, a world of appreciation for existence.

My name is Frank Balaam and much to my surprise,  I recently found, far away in the heart of the Industrial Midlands of Old England, a tiny woodland called Balaam’s Wood surrounded by  the town of Frankley.  This inconspicuous twelve acre woodland had somehow survived all humanity could throw at it since the 16th century.  In 2012, I went home to the U.K. to visit the ancient woodland where I was introduced to the world of Balaam’s Wood and welcomed by the volunteers who are its caretakers.  

Balaam’s Wood is an extra ordinary woodland which is so small it is often overlooked.  Immediately upon stepping into the wood, I realized it is the perfect metaphor to relate this planet’s story in paint.  Balaam’s Wood is a humble place of great serenity amidst the bustling city.  To me, it represents a universal place to contemplate the power of resilience and renewal and an opportunity to re-create on canvas through portraits of trees, an appreciation of the passionate energy of life itself.  

Somehow, Balaam’s Wood survived the age of Discovery when “Hearts of Oak” were hacked from English forests to build world conquering ships.  It survived massive iron trains thundering through its home bringing terror to the new pounding heart of the Industrial Revolution.  Later, World War II bombings in nearby industrial cities threatened it from the sky.  Then another type of explosion surrounded the trees:  population growth, which reduced it to a dozen acres, a shrinking island hoping to survive the next siege.  Onward, 20th century development steadily encroached on all sides and environmental damage still runs its course through the veins of the remnants of this ancient woodland.  Fortunately, in 1985 it was recognized as an Ancient Woodland and in 1998 a small nature conservancy group began to advocate on its behalf.   Unfortunately, the the history of Balaam’s Wood is a reoccurring story of trees and forests across the globe, so for me, the caretakers of Balaam’s Wood epitomize that aspect of human nature which represents the only hope this lovely blue planet has of hosting a long-term symbiotic relationship between humanity and everything else.  My paintings celebrate awareness, equality and energy, all traits that are alive and well in the minds and hearts of the caretakers of Balaam’s Wood.  

As an older man, I recently found myself sitting on another small bench underneath a massive oak canopy in Balaam’s Wood observing the graceful beauties before me.  The Latin world for contemplation originates from the word temple, a space marked out for observation, and in this quiet place of contemplation I asked, “How much smaller can this woodland become before it no longer survives?”  

Quietly sitting in Balaam’s Wood, the organic nature of trees became a refreshing change from our rapidly expanding digital world.  The organic world celebrates infinite diversity and painting the organic nature of trees is a means for me to model a world of mutually inclusive societies united in the simple passion of existence.   I simply hope that through awareness by the mind of itself as well as the world in which we live, it may be possible for humans and trees to live symbiotically and not exclusively of one another.   

Balaams Wood Heart of Oak - 32" x 56"

Balaam’s Wood - Heart of Oak - Oils on Canvas - 32” x 56” 

“In my life, I have often created art projects which have involved the elderly, homeless, mentally ill and the physically handicapped.  My art and heart has always tried to express a sense that everyone and everything, is entitled to respect, to a voice and to a time in the light”