Family Tree

Family Tree, johndockus


This 36″ by 24″ oil painting is unfinished and undated.   Areas remain as under-painting, especially the clouds at the very top and the two snakes and shed skin at the bottom.   The two snakes need a little more differentiation.   Since it has entirely shed its skin, the body of the snake in the backround on the left should be more vibrant and glistening.   After all, the blue of the pure sky has just entered its tail, soaked up into it, and higher up, replacing it, the sky is flushed like skin with slight bruising blooming in.

I’d also like the clouds to feel lighter and more amorphous, holding light and changing color like some magical substance, tantalizing and with more than one side, one moment like white gauze absorbing blood, still fresh and warm, pus seeping in around the edges, then like gatherers of amniotic fluid about to shake loose and fall like rain, and the next moment like barely transparent veils which dissolve to the touch, stretching and thinning out, and almost immediately reappearing fluffier where they just were; but overall I’d like the clouds to have the feel, curiously, of tissue inside living anatomy, the whole landscape despite grotesquerie in details like the inside of a womb, a warm and intimate yet scary and mysterious place where growth and development occurs, but also where danger is lurking and there’s the possibility at any moment of accident, of miscarriage and death.

There’s a suggestion in this picture of being stuck and stillborn.   The tree is an incarnation, twisted and knotted up, of desire to preserve oneself as part of the whole and, with a vague hope, to continue pushing and straining toward full realization, the whole in some profoundly regressive way like some monstrously cosmic umbilical cord twisting up toward the sky, and longing at the same time for the opposite, for self-annihilation and oblivion in one’s instinctive awareness of the horror of the overall form of which one is a part, and one’s crippling incapacity to face up to and endure the pain and suffering required for extracting and freeing oneself.   Inevitably there’s collapse and resignation within the overall form, and the roots grow deeper and the tree bark spreads and thickens.    Any beauty is merged with and consumed by the grotesque, and finally overtaken by it, to where the whole tree despite itself becomes beautifully ugly.   Is the sun rising or setting?   The womb is perhaps becoming a tomb.

I have this idea that this picture, as grim and hopeless as it appears, represents a necessary stage of descent, a digging in and pushing through the downside, and dwelling there for a time, in preparation for emergence on the upside, a retracing of a dark shadow cast in a nightmare world back up to the source of light.   Anyone who finds oneself a branch of such a gnarled and grotesque tree, eventually through the force of nature must crack, break off and fall to the ground, and then I imagine, wounded, must slither out and belly-crawl for a time, sidewinding like a snake, enduring the degradation and estrangement as an integral part of healing and maturation needed for a fuller and more complete return to human form.   It may be necessary for some to be an even lower and more basic lifeform first, a worm, before becoming a snake, fully experiencing each of those lifeforms before one can grow limbs, climb to one’s feet and begin walking upright let alone ever dream of sprouting wings and flying.

(Note:   My sister Amy painted one of the sprouted open little daisies in the right mid-ground, right in front of the tail-end of the fully shed snake skin.   Daisies are one of Amy’s favorite flowers if not her very favorite.)

.   .   .   .   .

A while ago I wrote the following to my parents, with whom, contrary to how it may seem at first glance at this picture, I have quite a good relationship:

“I was thinking of the Family Tree painting I stopped working on some time ago.  Do you remember it?  I think the placement of each of us in it is psychologically accurate.  The branch Amy is or has become, arches over the heads of you both, frozen but screaming out, a scream which would fill the air.  There’s about it however a silence:  it’s a mute scream.  Lisa is stretched away in the opposite direction from you both, her face with the sap almost entirely drained out of it and sullen, her arm-branches loaded down and about to break with the weight of her two children, hanging from her like two monkeys.  Maria and Nicholas are the only two free beings, but they’re naked and vulnerable as the day we were born.  They don’t yet suffer attachments and the consciousness thereof as we do.  They climb around the branches joyfully and innocently.  They’re the fruit of the tree.  Children are the blessed fruit on the tree of life.  And I, of course, crowned with a bird’s nest which has eggs in it (a self-sympathetic self-mockery is in this – a clown of nature, a jester I am, not an actual royal being like a prince or a king, though I sincerely desire to be), am stretching away from the roots as far as possible, nonetheless trying to feel in myself the tree’s whole form and the sap flowing through it of which I’m but a part, merely one branch, attempting to touch if not drag my twiggy fingertips through the passing clouds (my propensity for abstraction, for dreaming or “getting lost in the clouds”).   What knots have developed in this family tree.  You both are the trunk of the tree, embracing one another, supporting the entire weight of us all, branching out from you both.   The strain of the whole tree mainly comes down in your back and hips, your loins, Mom; but you, Dad, are there using what strength and counter-weight you have to hold her and us all upright, and to provide whatever firmness you can muster in yourself, roots gripping deep in the earth, but you pay a price for this by developing an inflexibility or stiffness in your pose.  Anger appears on your face; your brow is furrowed, as is Mom’s, but Mom’s face has in it the strain of agony and sorrow.  And around the base coiling and writhing around the roots are a couple of venomous snakes shedding their skins.  There’s also, if you recall, an ambiguous creature in the right foreground of the picture, crouched like a lizard, with a skull or kind of death’s mask for a face, and a wine jug protruding from its hind-quarters.   It pisses red wine into the roots of the family tree.  I consider this a rich symbol, and it doesn’t only suggest alcoholism.  Red wine, as you both know, also symbolizes blood in the Christian religion, the blood of Christ, which alludes to redemption.  The wine jug is also stitched into the hind-quarters of the ambiguous creature, however, with an “X” pattern, a criss-cross, which suggests poison.  One of the snakes which has shed its skin has a bulge in it, suggesting that it just swallowed an ambiguous creature like the one on the right foreground of the painting.  Snakes also have more than one meaning.  They don’t only embody threat and danger; they also embody intuitive and instinctual wisdom.  Consider, for instance, the universal medical symbol of two snakes entwined around a staff.  Of course this is all open for interpretation, but I do feel I’ve struck on something accurate here.  I should probably take the painting out and continue it, try to finish it.”

.   .   .

As I was working on this picture, I had the following verse by the poet Friedrich Holderlin from his ode entitled “Evening Fantasy” written out and taped next to my easel:

“Springtime buds high up in the evening sky,
      There countless roses bloom, and the golden world
         Seems calm, fulfilled; O there now take me,
               Crimson-edged clouds, and up there at last let

 My love and sorrow melt into light and air! -“










Skull Snake vision, John Dockus ,



  1. I love the sense of hope in the painting “Family Tree.” Like all families, this one is a bit of a mess, and we see many sinister qualities, but the tree is healthy, in full leaf, with no dead branches. The children are in the tree but not of it. We see that the children may choose to remain, and be absorbed into the tree, or take what nurture they can, and move on. Similarly, the young fellow carrying the birds’ nest on his head is reaching to the future. He has been absorbed, but the sinister qualities do not seem to touch him.

    • Thanks very much for the comment, Steve. As you observed in your email to me: “I posted a comment that may or may not capture any of what you as the artist consider the essence of the work. Which is among the things that so frustrates us artists. We have our ideas of what a work “means” or “represents”, and the viewing / reading public treats our creations like Rorschach palettes for their own projections.” This is true, but I welcome interpretation, if the person doing it is truly invested in it, engaging in it sincerely and with honesty of heart. Rorschach tests are fascinating and could be useful, helping spark good conversation, opening up possibilities of understanding which weren’t apparent before. It’s a way of accessing content which is already within us, serving as a catalyst to awaken it and bring it to the surface. A glass is filled with water and simply exists, but it’s fascinating that the glass may be considered half full by one person and half empty to another. Why that is for each person is connected to a complex and intricate series of relationships and life experiences, and how it has all been processed, the lesson or wisdom revealed, or not been processed, all backed up and tangled within. Being the subjective beings we are, to return to seeing the glass filled with water as it is, neither with shades on nor rose-tinted glasses, neither half empty nor half full, but in itself simply as it is, is not as easy as it sounds.

      I think of an artwork more in terms of a crystal, pure white light passing in, different colors coming out (that is, different interpretations). A good interpretation of a work is like a strand of the spectrum, a part not out of harmony with the essence of the whole, but helping to reveal more of the overall meaning, which, truth be told, largely begins as a mystery to the artist too. Any bit of return to origin and source is helpful. I think the more invested another is in an interpretation, the closer one might come to recognizing an underlying shared archetype.

      I wonder how this idea might be handled by another from a different family. It’s frightening and sad to think how even more horrifying it might appear expressed by someone else in their own experience of immediate family. Others, on the other hand, might have much more healthy and beautiful looking trees, with more branches, filled with more leaves, and surrounded by lovelier creatures, more fairytale than nightmare. You’re right that at least this tree is alive and together, growing and sprouting leaves despite its grotesquerie. There is hope in that.

      I still wonder why it is I have such attraction to the grotesque. I have a huge internal blockage to beauty for its own sake outwardly expressed, in its superficial aspects. I can’t make pretty pictures for their own sake. I also have this deep inner need to work and rework, grinding down, ending up with a bone-dryness, purging all sentiment, never satisfied with first-takes and things which come too easily. I figure it even comes across sometimes as masochistic. I find comfort and affirmation in these words by Francis Bacon from his short essay “Of Adversity”: “Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and Adversity is not without comforts and hopes. We see in needle-works and embroideries, it is more pleasing to have a lively work upon a sad and solemn ground, than to have a dark and melancholy work upon a lightsome ground: judge therefore of the pleasure of the heart by the pleasure of the eye. Certainly virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed or crushed: for Prosperity doth best discover vice, but Adversity doth best discover virtue.”

  2. Do you still visit and post here? I love this painting. What has become of it, my sweet brother? Your talent and intellect know no bounds…I’m endlessly proud of you, and so happy to be able to call you my big brother. So much love.

    • Thanks so much for your warm heartfelt compliment, Amy. I love you too and always enjoy your company. We’ve had some wonderfully honest, exploratory conversations through the years, some of the best I’ve ever had, deeply meaningful to me, even especially because we have accompanied each other to some dark and disturbing places, descending into the hell within, we have seen each other at our most broken and vulnerable, and in such a condition you have shown me how much sensitive understanding and good heart you have in your humanity. I must admit with this in mind, however, that my talent and intellect do have bounds. I have definite limitations, and there are so many things in this world about which I am frankly in the dark. Often I shiver in fear or am petrified. I grope around for something solid to grab hold of, or for a place to put my foot where I won’t slip and fall. I knock up against bounds all the time. But this isn’t necessarily bad. I think it is vital to our creativity to not fight against the natures we have and to learn how to work in harmony with our limitations. As I expressed to you when we were with Mom not long ago, something I realize more and more the older we become, is that, though pride and ego makes this hard to admit, we human beings really need each other. Precisely because of individual limitations and bounds, we need each other’s help to make up for our weaknesses and deficiencies. You have strengths and skills you have developed and talent which I don’t naturally have. In ways I am more neurotic than you are, and I think this aspect of my character expresses itself in my art. There are so many things I cannot do well. There are many ways of drawing and painting not suited to my nature. I tend more toward being introvertedly contemplative, more hermetically sealed, than exuberantly expressionistic. I have developed this particular way of doing things that personally feels right to me.

      Not many individuals visit this blog. It drifts in virtual space, orbiting the planet, being pulled more toward the darkness of the void. Doesn’t particularly bother me. I’ve grown used to it. I just do my thing. I’m working on other drawings I hope to post in the not too distant future.

      This Family Tree painting in its physical form is presently hanging on my apartment wall. Since our dear Dad passed away on May 7, 2017, that whole process of being there for him and witnessing what he went through being so profoundly moving to us, shaking us to our depths, it is interesting to contemplate what form this Family Tree might be envisioned in now. I have thought of trying to do another painting, having even a series in mind. Stages in the growth and development of the Family Tree, from its infancy to its falling apart in the earthly realm, parts which die transitioning and being replanted in the spiritual realm, reaching down through the clouds and in a way still with us and supporting us, but now in a different sense. Since the patriarch is no longer rooted in the earth, providing counterweight and sustained effort to hold the whole tree up, straining with Mom to support us all, I figure each of us as branches has snapped and fallen to the ground. My fingertips no longer dragging through the clouds, I have fallen and hit the ground hard. I have bled into the soil. I have been worm, and I have been snake. I am presently undergoing my own internal metamorphosis, having been jolted back to the primordial, and now I am gradually growing back to human form with more depth to my sorrow and I hope a bit more wisdom in my understanding of the whole picture. A tremendous amount of emotional and psychic tension and stress was released in Mom, at that moment Dad died and was finally extracted from her, no longer intimately entwined with her, and she found herself deposited in widowhood. It must be like having a phantom limb to her. Dad and she were together so long that she must feel he’s still with her and a part of her. I sometimes feel he’s still here too. Often when I am in the state between waking and dream, I can hear his voice and see him. He still lives deep down in our memory and pumps through our hearts.

      “Death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship.”

      It may be that the Family Tree never dies. The whole transforms into something much more sublime. A single Family Tree is connected to other Family Trees, stretching back into the past. There are forests of Family Trees, which, like the hairs on so many heads, themselves are perhaps only branches connected to a much bigger trunk and deeper roots which cannot be seen by the human eye but can be felt down in our inmost core. Through every generation branches snap and fall in the same way that snakes shed their skins in renewal. New seeds drop and take root in the soil. By deaths of loved ones, we are shocked back to our beginnings, but after a period of being wounded and crawling, each time we grow back feeling a little more human, which means less and less like deities, more vulnerable and mortal, more sensitive and appreciative of our limitations and bounds, and hopefully more patient and forgiving of others.

      I’m deeply grateful you are a part of my life and that we have shared so much with each other. You have helped me become more of my true and authentic self in more ways than you know.

      Thank you, Amy, my dear sister, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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