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.”

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