Dina Brodsky: ‘The Secret Life of Trees’

Tree #80, 8.5×11.5″, oil ond ballpoint pen on paper, April 3d, 2016
While pregnant with her son, artist and miniaturist Dina Brodsky began drawing trees as a way to keep making art while no longer painting. Selected works from the portfolio of 126 images that resulted are now on view at New York’s Bernaducci.Meisel Gallery, running concurrently with a show by Dina’s sister Maya. Executed primarily in ball-point pen, along with traces of other media, Brodsky’s trees present a dazzling array of formations and textures.
They are both a diary and a rumination on the infinite variety of nature.
John Seed Interviews Dina Brodsky

Dina Brodsky

Tell me a bit about where and how you grew up
I was born in Belarus, but my family immigrated to the US in the early 1990s and my formative years were spent in Massachusetts, between Boston and Amherst, where I attended college. As to how I grew up, I read a lot and compulsively made lists of the things I read about. My family talked a lot: I suppose that between talking, reading and list-making I became the person that I am.

Dina’s sketchbook

When did you realize you were an artist?
My first week at university, at 3am, while working on a homework assignment for a foundations art class that I took because I thought it would be an easy way to pass the time before I could drop out of university and hitchhike around Europe, which was my plan at the time. It was a charcoal self-portrait: I had never used charcoal before, and wasn’t particularly good at it, but I was more absorbed in the portrait than I had been in anything, possibly ever. That was when I realized that this is what I want to do, for as many hours as possible, every day of my life, this is who I want to be. That was almost exactly 16 years ago, and I still feel this way.
I ended up hitchhiking around Europe as well, mostly to draw old buildings and go to museums.

“Secret Life of Trees”, day 106 out of 126, ballpoint pen on paper

What kind of experience did you have at the New York Academy and who were your mentors?
The New York Academy was an absolutely amazing place. It was everything I ever wanted from my education, and, after my undergraduate years, where I had very little guidance in the kind of art I wanted to learn to make, it was a sort of epiphany. I was incredibly hungry for information, and both the professors and my fellow students were incredibly knowledgeable, hard working, and had similar beliefs about what constitutes art that I did. As for mentors, all of the professors were fantastic.
Wade Schuman was one that was particularly inspirational, for the scope of his knowledge, as well as simply how much he cared, both about art and his students.

Tree #18, ballpoint pen on paper, 3.5×5.5″, August 26th, 2015

How did you decide to begin your series of trees?
A lot of my sketchbook drawings through the years are from long distance cycling trips I have taken, where I would mostly camp in the forest. Trees were a good thing to sketch as a warm-up in the morning, and I have a lot of them in my sketchbooks. The tree drawing project I just finished “The Secret Life of Trees” began when I was pregnant the summer before this one, and was getting progressively less mobile (and unable to use oil paint).
I started drawing from my sketches and photos I took while traveling. Then people I knew—friends and family at first, then people I only knew through social media—started sending me photos and stories of their favorite trees -some sent poems, as well as tree related traditions specific to their part of the world. The project continued after my son was born, as a way to vicariously see bits of the universe I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. In a way it was a sort of tree diary of that year of my life, during which my life changed dramatically.

Tree #55, ballpoint pen and gouache on brown handmade paper, 4×6″, January 17, 2016

Your trees are done mainly in ballpoint pen: how did you choose that medium and how do you make it work for you?
Honestly, ballpoint pen is the only drawing tool that I’m comfortable with. It’s been my favorite and only sketching instrument for over 10 years, although these are my first ballpoint drawings outside of my sketchbook. I like the level of control you can get with ballpoint, also the fact that it doesn’t allow for erasure creates an immediacy of sorts: I have to truly focus on the drawing in front of me.

Tree #60, ballpoint and white gel pen on paper, 4.5×8″, January 28th, 2016

Tell me about one image in particular
Tree #60: These are poplar trees from France, sent my way by the painter Brian Neish, who I have never met in person, but corresponded with over the last few years. He sent me some photos of a poplar grove, along with some paintings he made of the same place. He also told me of an old tradition from the part of France he lived in: when a farmer’s daughter is born, he plants a poplar grove. Poplars take 16 or so years to reach maturity, and, when a daughter reaches 16 and is considered of a marriageable age, the poplar grove becomes her dowry.

Tree #96, 5.5×8″, ballpoint pen, watercolor and gouache on paper, May 21st, 2016

What have you learned while working on this series?
I learned that I work best, and think most creatively when given a reasonably strict structure within which to operate. the project evolved organically throughout the year, growing—sort of like a tree itself—in directions I wanted to explore, experimenting with different varieties of trees, different textures of paper, different mediums, as I started to add watercolor, gouache and finally oil to the ballpoint.
Also that the deeper you go into a subject, the more interesting it becomes- the more I drew the trees, the more I learned about them, I started seeing the trees around me in an entirely new way.

Tree #81, 5×5″, ballpoint pen on paper, April 4th, 2016

Tell me a bit about your life and interests outside of art.
Right now my life outside art is mostly centered around meeting the various needs of a very small child. Before that, my interests vaguely revolved around reading, cycling and lurking (which is the way I think of just observing the world and people around me). All of these feed the art I make, also, other than reading, my sketchbook has always accompanied me during my lurking and cycling.
Is there anything else you would like to mention? I think it is my sketchbooks, more than anything else that have shaped the way I see the world. All of my thoughts, observations, travel and ideas end up as my sketchbook pages, which in turn inform my finished work.

Dina sketching

Dina Brodsky
Secret Life of Trees
8 September - 1 October 2016
37 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Between 5th and 6th Avenues
3rd Floor