KENWOOD — Hazel Belvo spends her summers on “the big lake,” as she calls Lake Superior, in a house east of Grand Marais, not far from the tip of the Arrowhead.
There, Belvo is near the Spirit Tree, an ancient, knotty cedar, twisted up like an arthritic hand. It is stunted and scruffy looking, anchored to a soilless rock on the edge of the water. By some accounts, it was a century old when voyageurs paddled down the Lake Superior shoreline almost 300 years ago.
Belvo first visited the Spirit Tree in 1961, and she’s been drawing, photographing and painting it ever since. She is a woman who has a special attachment to trees, who on her travels around the world will detour to visit significant trees, but there isn’t another like that one.
“It’s been my favorite subject, so to speak, or inspiration,” she said recently.
Nine new Spirit Tree paintings are currently on display at Bockley Gallery. They are vibrant, sensual paintings, celebrating the tree’s physical form while using color to plumb its emotional depths.
It was the late artist George Morrison, Belvo’s former husband and an Ojibwe born on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, who introduced Belvo to the tree. The couple was visiting from New York City, where they lived, and they walked out to the Lake Superior shore to give the Spirit Tree (“Manidoo-giizhikens” in Ojibwe, often translated as Little Spirit Cedar Tree) the traditional offering of tobacco and vermilion.
It was on that same trip Belvo first saw Lake Superior. She’d grown up in farming country in the Ohio River Valley, an inland upbringing that inspired a fascination with big water.
“It was always sort of magical to me to be on the edge of a body of water you couldn’t see across,” she recalled.
She’d felt that gazing out over the Atlantic from New York, but never expected to discover another ocean in Minnesota. Superior seemed “more dramatic” to her than the Atlantic, capable of sudden mood swings whenever the winds shifted.
Watching this from the windows of her North Shore home, she said, “is like being in a ship.”
The Spirit Tree has stood witness to many of Lake Superior’s legendary storms, and the title of one of Belvo’s paintings, “Survivor,” seems to acknowledge this. Belvo’s expressive brush strokes weave together green and purple with vivid highlights of yellow and orange.
In photos, the Spirit Tree leans out over the water, and its rocky perch seems precarious. But Belvo said it’s actually key to the tree’s survival.
“The tree’s roots go through the rock and into the water, and it survives because it’s on the edge of the water,” she explained.
In another painting, “Sage,” the rough bark of the tree is pale and sandy colored, dissolving into a tangerine background.
“Sometimes when you go down there when it’s dark, the tree looks very white, like bleached bones,” Belvo said.
For these paintings, Belvo started by searching out the form of the tree, usually focusing on a portion of its trunk and canopy, and then added color, working the paint until a sense of personality emerged from the canvas. In “Sage,” she saw a “boney figure, an old person,” she said.
Whatever the Spirit Tree has meant to Belvo throughout her life, in these paintings it seems chiefly a metaphor for the wisdom and stoicism of old age. It is by turns “Crone,” “Matriarch,” “Poet” and “Prophet.”
“I think that’s because it’s me who’s aging,” acknowledged Belvo, who is 78.
Unlike the Spirit Tree, though, Belvo isn’t tethered to any one spot. Just the opposite; she and partner Marcia Kushmore, also an artist, are avid travelers, having in April just recently returned from the vineyard country around Sonoma, where Belvo saw something familiar in the gnarled old grapevines.
“They’re fascinating,” she said. “They’re like 3-foot Spirit Trees.”
In a few months, though, Belvo and Kushmore will be back on the North Shore, in a home with panoramic views of Lake Superior.
“That’s my special place, the place I feel the most whole, the most grounded, and that’s right on the edge of earth and water,” she said. “That’s the perfect place for me to be, on that big lake and in the nature that’s there, the trees.”
“Hazel Belvo: Spirit Tree” runs through May 18 at Bockley Gallery, 2123 W. 21st St. 377-4669. bockleygallery.com