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Knots, tangles, and trees

Over and over again, I find myself drawing tangles.

I like untangling things—electrical cables or string or anything else that becomes knotted. It's a calming, almost meditative task for me. I realize that you may feel differently; knots provoke anxiety and frustration for most people.

The contrast between these two responses is strong, and I think when we look at images of tangled things, we feel a little bit of both at the same time. These images contain a tension: between anxiety and calm, frustration and meditation.

Nova Scotia is an especially tangled place. For those who are not familiar with the province, it is mostly forested, and our forests looks nothing like the sunlit glades of giant trees that are depicted in popular media. Our woods are dense and tangled and dark. In many places, you can’t squeeze yourself between the trees because they grow too close together. Even in more generously spaced areas, you can’t see very far. Our woods are chaotic and claustrophobic.

So why do we feel calm when we enter the woods? I think this is the same contradiction that I described above, on the scale of a landscape.

The forest is visually chaotic. There are all those branches, inhabiting the same space, interweaving and interdependent. There's no way to move through the space, no where for your eye to rest. There is an order to the forest—every branch comes from somewhere after all—it's just not one that we can hope to untangle or understand. So our only choice is to accept and trust in the complexity. And when we do, we feel calm.

I think with tangled images, it’s pleasing to see something so complex, to trust that within its labyrinthine structure, it all makes sense somehow.

In my art, I'm doing the work of untangling so you don't have to. I like untangling things, remember. And I hope that you like looking at these images, knowing that you don't have to untangle them. I hope you can draw some calm from their complexity.

I’ve been drawing tangled shapes for a long time. As a child, I drew mazes. In high school, I drew Celtic knots. As a cartographer I drew highway interchanges. In my recent woodcut print, The artists parents explore Big Island, I tackled this theme intentionally for the first time. I hope that the figures hidden in the trees draw you in and encourage you to explore the tangle.

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If I've sparked some thoughts about knots, leave a comment or write me a note.

And if you love untangling things as much as I do, I also recommend this video about the mathematics of knots!


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