In ‘Tree of Life’ show, students explore artistic and environmental themes

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Artist Wa Liu and pianist Chuhan Zhang at the "Tree of Life" show on Cross Campus. (Photo by Kaifeng Wu)

People walking on the Cross Campus were first attracted by a burst of vibrant piano music; then they saw a girl painting light green brushstrokes on a long piece of white silk draped from a tree branch. The music became more intense and powerful, and the painter used heavier strokes to create the image of a tree with a huge crown.

This art and music improvisation show was created and performed by student artist Wa Liu ’17 and pianist Chuhan Zhang ’18, and featured original music composed by Harvard student Sam Wu ’17. The show, which was named “Tree of Life,” drew roughly a hundred viewers for its two premiere shows on April 10.

During the fourth act of the show, “Leaves,” the music took on a fast tempo. The artist jumped back from the silk canvas after each stroke, and rushed forward to paint more long and heavy strokes representing the leaves of the tree. Streams of green paint dripped down from the crown, evoking the lushness of a tree in mid-summer.

The performance ended with a light-hearted postlude that echoed the bright prelude. The audience members paused a moment when the music stopped, contemplating the painting, now finished and draped over the tree. The next moment the audience burst into a loud round of applause.

Liu and Zhang said that there are many motifs underlying the 10-minute performance. The first and foremost objective of the show was to marry music to art, they said.

“We wanted to visualize music and to let art flow,” said Zhang, “because usually you can’t grab music, and you can’t hear art.”

Wu, the composer, told the audience that they wanted to do more than create a piece of music that the artist on the stage can dance to: Rather, they tried to facilitate a conversation between visual art and music.

Another key motif of the show was environmentalism. The artist used only biodegradable paint, and the part of lawn used for the performance was covered with tarp to protect the soil. By giving the performance outdoors, the artists wanted to create a more intimate relationship with nature, they said. Nature, however, was not exactly cooperative because it was foggy and windy that day.

“It was as if nature were acting against us at the time,” said Liu. “Fortunately, a member of the audience later told me that the wind animated the painting and added to the performance, not reduced it.”

The modern idea of environmentalism was presented through traditional culture. The root and trunk of the tree consisted of ancient Chinese hieroglyphs. These characters refer to concepts such as “spring,” “fate,” “nature,” and “green,” all related to the motif of the show. Liu said that she got the idea during a visit to a museum in China when she became fascinated by the hieroglyphs on bronze utensils of the Shang Dynasty, dated over 3,000 years ago. Zhang said that there were Chinese elements in the music as well, and she saw a parallel between the preservation of traditional culture and the preservation of the natural environment.

The show “Tree of Life” will be performed again at Harvard Art First Festival in May. The project is funded by the Creative Performing Arts Awards at Ezra Stiles College.

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