The bark of time | Jo Caruana

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to painter Jeni Caruana about her new exhibition Arbor Vitae, which taps into her long-running fascination with trees as a metaphor for life

Cypress - Jeni Caruana
Cypress - Jeni Caruana

What have been some favourite subjects for your art over the years, and how have your interests evolved over time?

Trees have always figured as a favourite motif in my work. I find that as a subject they inspire me to create both figurative and more abstract work. In my current exhibition, I have also written texts and poems to accompany the paintings, which has inspired me further. Trees have always held deep metaphorical and symbolic meanings for mankind, throughout the world and across cultures. My first painting in the exhibition is taken from the ‘Tree of Life’ pattern painted on the ceiling of the Oracle Chamber in the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum. From there I explore many different meanings and interpretations on the subject of trees. I tend to work in series of paintings. Other recurring themes have been the Jazz festival and other ‘live’ paintings, the prehistoric temples and nudes.

Was the natural world also part of this? Given that your upcoming exhibition focuses on trees, what in particular inspires you about them?

The natural world has always inspired me. Trees are a great metaphor for life – they generally have much longer life spans than we do, which I find fascinating when working with them. Through them we can connect to the both the past and the future. Art is a form of meditation, in that it can take you into an altered state of consciousness quite easily. In that state, we are more aware of what our senses are picking up.

Trees are great subjects to focus on for this kind of in-depth contemplation.

Imagining that we have roots like theirs, maybe feeling that we can travel down through those roots to ground ourselves, can help us to feel more stable in our – sometimes unpredictable – lives. Identifying with the strong but flexible trunk of the tree can give us feelings of great resilience and fortitude. Reaching up to the skies through the branches and leaves can help us feel expansive and connected to something greater than ourselves.

Apart from the thematic (read: environmental) relevance of focusing on trees for your art, what are the technical pleasures you get from illustrating them, as an artist?

In this exhibition in particular, I have included many different approaches and methods of working, different media and effects. The tree motif lends itself to this very well. I usually begin my work on site, using watercolours as they are not only convenient outside, they also have an organic unpredictability which I find inspiring. In the studio, I often push the paintings into various other media, acrylics, collage, ink; whatever seems to be ‘right’ at the time.

How do you think art can help to raise awareness and inspire action against environmental devastation, and what do you make of the local scenario in this regard?

I do hope that art can help raise awareness of how desperately we need to care about the Maltese environment. This exhibition focuses on how important trees are to human life – we would simply not be able to breathe at all without trees. I am including text with each painting highlighting various aspects of trees and their vital role in our well-being.

Holding the exhibition in the Majjistral Nature and History Park in Ghajn Tuffieha is the most perfect setting. The Park is the only protected area of natural land in Malta. The three NGOs which govern it (Din l-Art Helwa, Nature Trust and the Gaia Foundation) are doing an excellent job with limited funding. They host school visits and educational talks in the Visitor’s Centre, and guided walks in the Park itself.

The centre is situated in the old British barracks, and the management have excellent plans for their renovation and rehabilitation into a centre for environmental studies. All they need is the funding, which I hope will be forthcoming very soon, as it’s such a worthwhile and necessary project.

What’s next for you?

I continue to teach regularly, which I really enjoy. Last October I took a group of six students painting in Trapani, which was huge fun, so I am planning to do that again next spring. Other than that, goodness knows! Every time I do an exhibition I say I’ll never do it again It’s a lot of work and very stressful, and it stops me painting. But here I am doing it again – and now that it’s up and looking so lovely in the Centre, I am very glad I did!

Arbor Vitae will remain on display at the Majjistral Nature and History Park, Ghajn Tuffieha until December 16 from 10:00 to 15:00 daily. For updates on activities related to the exhibition, log on to its Facebook page: and to find out more about Jeni Caruana and her work, log on to: