Leanne Shapton’s The Native Trees of Canada will likely make forest rangers shake their heads in disbelief. “Why is that basswood leaf turquoise?” they will ask. Or, “What’s with the fuscia alpine lark branch?” Devotees of the New York City-based artist and author’s work, on the other hand, will nod theirs in delight as they peruse the 84 renderings of deciduous and coniferous life in the replica sketchbook. “Why didn’t I notice the papaw’s Fauvist hues before?” they will ask.
Shapton’s work tends to provoke that response. A former art director of Saturday Night and the New York Times op-ed page, her illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker; she has designed book jackets, textiles and movie credits. Brad Pitt was so taken by her last book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, which traced a doomed romance via an auction catalogue, that he snapped up the movie rights.
Her enchanting new national forest was inspired by a government reference book of the same name found in a used bookstore in Toronto. Most would have seen clinical black-and-white photographs, but the native Canadian saw ghostly, abstract beauty: “You don’t see the tree; you just see the leaf,” she says. The absence of colour allowed her imagination to run wild; she used ink and sample pots of house paint to express “that natural awe we have at the way these things are constructed.” The resulting colour-saturated images reflect what Shapton calls the joy one experiences “when you’re really little or really happy or even drunk when you see something as beautiful and whole.”
Shapton gave the original sketchbook to her British-born fiancé for Christmas. “I was, like, ‘Know your Canada! Know your Canadian trees!’ ” she says, laughing. Now, thanks to this modern-day Emily Carr, he does.