Ashley Cecil has plenty of experience making art about plants and animals. Her resume includes artist residencies at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Garden. The mission statement on her web site reads, “nurturing love of nature through art.”
Still, Cecil was in for an education when she accepted her latest residency, at Tree Pittsburgh. As the nonprofit’s first-ever artist in residence, she had six months to study trees and their benefits in an urban environment. She’ll share what she learned starting Thursday, with the opening of “Fruitful,” an exhibit at the group’s new riverfront headquarters in Lawrenceville.
Everyone knows trees provide shade, and many are aware that they also clean the air, retain stormwater, and serve as animal habitat. But Cecil’s research – reading books and scientific papers, shadowing Tree Pittsburgh staff, and studying in the group’s Heritage Nursery – turned up many surprises. One study she read, for instance, found a correlation between increased tree cover and reduced crime.
That initially struck Cecil as counterintuitive: Doesn’t vegetation just give criminals more places to hide? Maybe – but researchers theorize that greenery also increases “social cohesion within a neighborhood,” she said.
“It helps neighbors get out in their neighborhood when they feel safer, which also then creates a sense of surveillance,” she said. “People also feel a sense of pride in their property. They’re more protective of it.”
Meanwhile, evidence that trees (and greenery in general) make communities healthier continues to mount. “When you think about reducing asthma rates, cardiovascular disease, things that especially here in Pittsburgh that we really struggle with because of our air quality, it just makes so much sense that what we should be investing in is planting and maintaining trees.”
Cecil communicates these concepts in a variety of ways.
“We’re really looking for splashes of color and bold patterns that catches people’s attention at first view and hopefully draws them in, so that they read this text and ask questions of a staff member to learn a little more,” she said.
A few works are oil paintings, on slabs of wood, of animals that depend on trees. The five colorful hummingbirds in one piece are accompanied by five monotone hummingbird outlines – a way to suggest animal populations lost to things like declining habitat.
Another piece is Cecil’s take on classic toile wallpaper, on which a few vignettes are repeated in a pattern. Cecil repeats four scenes of people interacting with trees: planting them, for instance, but also harvesting fruit and relaxing in a hammock slung between two sturdy trunks. (Look closely at the figures on the wallpaper, and you might recognzie the Tree Pittsburgh staffers who served as models.)
Tree Pittsburgh launched the artist residency in part to explore new ways to educate people about trees, but also to help activate its new headquarters, a solar-powered facility that opened last fall and hosts its workshops, classes and other events.
Pittsburgh’s tree canopy currently covers about 40 percent of the city, a figure Tree Pittsburgh wants to increase to 60 percent in the next couple decades.
“Potentially millions of trees need to be planted,” said Matthew Erb, Tree Pittsburgh’s director of urban forestry. “We’re trying to get as many trees out there as we can.”
Erb said challenges include the city’s ongoing building boom, which is culling old trees faster than new ones are being planted. The group relies heavily on its volunteers, known as Tree Tenders, who plant, care for, and advocate for trees.
Cecil hopes her artwork will inspire viewers to help out.
“It’s trying to make it more approachable and also personal to people, so they can see why these topics relate to their own health. So hopefully they care and become stewards,” she said.
The opening reception is free and family-friendly, and includes a print-making activity with fresh leaves.