Because there’s more to explore

The sound walk Semi-Colon is one of four participatory works created with and produced by Audio Artist Dawn Matheson, as part of her How To Draw A Tree multimedia soundwalk project. In this meandering, philosophical walk, Abhiraj Dadiyan invites the listener to interact with nature in imaginative and playful ways… but really, he is saving his own life.

This sound walk is one of the shortlisted pieces in the Sound Walk September Awards 2023, and comes after a piece by Dawn was also shortlisted in last year’s SWS Awards. Here, Dawn and Abhiraj talk about their work.

I, Dawn, am the producing artist behind this project called How To Draw A Tree, funded solely by Canadian arts grants involving a really neat mix of people.  

‘How to Draw a Tree’ is a play on words; How to draw a tree ‘to us,” teasing out the creative and very therapeutic ways of drawing nature closer, essential for both our survivals: humans in mental health crisis (epidemic mental illness) and trees (in crisis of death and extinction). 

Mental illness is an enigmatic, knotty condition and so must be its healing and treatment.

I’ll tell you about the larger project first, the people (and trees) behind it, then zoom in Abhiraj, and his specific piece, Semi-Colon.

How To Draw A Tree (.ca) 

How to Draw a Tree is a participatory sound and walking project led by me, Dawn Matheson, an interdisciplinary artist working with a social practice, meaning that my work is all about relationships and co-creation. I have always partnered with folks considered ‘vulnerable’ or marginalized in society,  doing whatever I can to facilitate creativity together in order to foster a bit of liberation from everyday suffering and to dismantle the barriers between us all. 

This particular work brings University students living with mental illnesses together with trees for a year-long creative, care-taking, reciprocal engagement culminating in immersive free public sound walks at the Arboretum, University of Guelph, Canada (located right on the campus: 400 acres of gardens, woodlands & meadows) and online, brought vividly to life by visual artist Richelle Forsey. The soundwalks created tell the stories of this engagement. 

The Arboretum in summer (Richelle Forsey)

To date we have four soundwalks animated on the howtodrawatree.ca website and also onsite accessible via QR code.

For each walk, the forest is a co-narrator and she also provides all the visuals; nature is the best artist.

Reciprocal relationship building through collaboration and creativity is at the heart of this work, with the goal of combating isolation and creating social change where it is most needed. In turn, we hope the work will help cultivate wonder for nature, so that we will care for it, as it cares for us. 

How did this start?

The work started with me, a collaborative multimedia artist living with a youth diagnosis of bipolar, which has carried on throughout my life in many debilitating but also life-giving ways. Even though I live with this condition myself, I have never created work around it, specifically… though, mental ‘unwellness,’ or however you choose to describe this condition, was always present and sometimes even more difficult to survive than the disability or stigma or social bias my collaborators were living with. It was this condition that thrives on isolation, loneliness, shame and disconnection where my collaborators felt the most ill. 

So it was high time to dive in and explore what we can do with mental illness and creativity. 

And the other party, the relationship which has helped me the most living with this condition? Not therapists, not drugs, not religion, not meditation, though I’ve done them all, but trees. Taking a walk in the forest.
Trees have “saved me from myself,” and I’ve never quite known why or how. I deeply love trees. And, of course, there is the larger human race parallels: ecological degradation and climate change are the greatest threat to the planet and our species…. And the despair is showing up in our mental health.

So, that would be the third collaborator. Trees, mental ‘wellness’, and creativity became the trio. 

I wanted to break away from the conventional idea of care and medicalization of mental health. Mental illness is an enigmatic, knotty condition and so must be its healing and treatment. How to Draw a Tree explores this process as an artistic practice.

The idea is, of course, the simplest thing in the world: getting to know a tree for our mutual benefit and seeing if we can co-create together… then telling that story though an audio project. But the execution was much more difficult.  How do we ‘draw’ a tree to us? And how do we do this in an authentic way, without our controlling, overthinking mind getting in the way? And if we are successful in creating kinship, how do we reciprocate this generosity we have received?

My one rule was to keep visiting the trees, no matter my mental health state. Trees would not shame me, and they never did. So, I walked and recorded, some days in tears, many in laughter, all documented then edited for an audience. 

(When I told the Indigenous elder on this project, Peter Schuler, about this concept, he snickered— he has never been separated from nature and didn’t need to create an ‘arts project’ in order to reconnect. “We know it in our bones; we are not separate from nature. Trees are our brothers and sisters.” Well, how do the rest of us get back to that? He joined our team to introduce us to some of his kin.)

So, a few years back, I spent the first year ‘dating’ trees at the Arboretum… There were some misunderstandings, and many ‘rejections’ on both our parts, but, in the end, my tree found me… and we are still an item today. 

(If you want to hear more on how this all went rather than this slapdash introduction, please listen to my prototype soundwalk uploaded here on walk · listen · create called How To Draw A Tree.)

At first, I was so happy to be alone with the trees, but, soon the trees introduced me to some of their human friends and these people became the Tree Team, and subsequently members of a very nontraditional concept of a mental health care team, all centred around our love and interdependence with trees. We spent hours walking together, listening and being quiet, and meeting trees. 

The team includes an Indigenous elder, a Kenyan tree planter, a lead horticulturalist, a Jesuit poet, an animal tracker, a Muslim Eco-psychologist, a renowned birder, and a composer who creates music with nature.  

Richelle Forsey (pictured on the left, with me on the right) is the co-artist on this project with her incredible visuals for the sound walk. From micro to macro, documentary to fine art, she has created a stunningly accessible visual guide to this work on the site. 

Having completed the prototype, I needed to move from tree to forest and invite students with lived experiences of mental illness to participate in this project. (As mentioned, I didn’t really want to create a work focused on me, at all; the goal was to collaborate with students. But if felt only fair to go through this untested process myself if I am to ask this of others.) 

The University of Guelph Wellness Department supported me with their resources and their outreach, and I was amazed (but also saddened: so many unwell students desperate to manage their mental illness) at the number of eager students. 

Every Tree Longs for a Forest.

Semi-Colon

Abhiraj was not one of them. In fact, he had never gotten word of the opportunity nor had accessed the Wellness Centre before. He is an international student from India studying business at University of Guelph, Canada. His secret was that he truly wanted to write poetry, but there was no way he could be funded to study in Canada in that discipline, he said. But, he did enrol in Dr. Karen Houle’s poetry class… and that is how he came to me. Karen told me I had to meet “Abhi” and, after a walk together in the forest, he committed. 

He spent a year wandering and talking to everything and everyone and finding imaginative (and ofter funny) ways to engage with the natural world. 

Abhiraj nearly extinguished his own light a few years ago; now he acts as a lamplighter for others. “Death has always given me her bid, but never her hand …” 

Abhiraj has a semi-colon tattoo on his wrist, symbolizing that his life is not a sentence, but the sentence continues on. 

His meandering, philosophical walk invites the listener to interact with nature in imaginative and playful ways. 

I edited the piece with some help from a great podcast producer named JP Davidson. Jeff Bird, musician, composed the music for Abhi’s piece. 

Abhiraj

Creating Semi-Colon as part of the How To Draw a Tree team was a spiritual journey for me. At first, I was hesitant to share my story with the rest of the world because it was daunting and having so many people know my mental health challenge felt overwhelming. But, when I started recording the audio, I started to see that it would be good for so many people to know that I am still here, even though I tried to erase myself. It made me realize that I needed to be the person who helps other people find their light, maybe that light to continue is inside them, around them or in someone or something they love. 

Abhi and walnuts from his ‘tree’.

Finding out different spots in nature and meeting creatures, dead or alive, was really eye-opening because it made me realize that we are interconnected. For example, I asked people to write a story about a dinosaur eating from the leaf of the petrified wood I found in the forest. Who knows, maybe a decade later someone would write a story about it and publish it somewhere making the memory immortal, in a sense. 

I asked people to imagine stories in the roots of an old tree. I invited listeners to sit down and make friends with a tree and to write the trees poetry. 
Finding out my tree(s) was challenging because I thought the tree would call out to me by telling me their name, but I found my tree(s) by recognizing what I can do with this audio project for people. I found my trees are the ones who might look lonely, but truly aren’t. Things aren’t as they seem. But there is hope for everyone. It takes time for your people to find you or you to find your people. 

I hope whoever listens to the audio journey finds themselves at the final stop at frog pond, saying, “I existed, I was here,” and be content with it. There is no grandiose in this journey, there is only the journey, which is life.

Permanent dedication

The work didn’t end with the audio walks I participated in. On the front lawn of University of Guelph, we have now planted 4 ‘sister’ trees to each of the trees featured in the soundwalks as a tribute to this audio walk project. This is now the first Tree Wellness Circle celebrating creativity, trees and wellness on a campus, that we know of.
You can see the circle in the leading image for this article.


The winners and honourable mentions of the SWS Awards 2023 will be announced in January 2024.

Dawn Matheson

Award winner SWS23 shortlisted

Dawn’s art is about relationships. She is a Canada-based multimedia artist with a socially-engaged practice, specializing in video and audio art, installed, broadcast and performed in public spaces. Her work can be found at festivals, galleries, museum...

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