CLARKSVILLE, Texas — As a painter and writer, Deborah Paris found fertile ground for inspiration in a pocket of woods nestled near her home in Northeast Texas.
The Lennox Woods, a rarity as an old-growth forest of Southern hardwoods, became that special place for her. It's where a wagon trail brought her to the perfect vantage points to study trees, ranging from hickory to maple, hornbeam to elm, sweetgum to red oak and pine.
Those trees and the land they call home became subjects for her paintings, but she also found an opportunity for deep reflection in written form. This personal discovery is explored in her book "Painting the Woods," due out Nov. 24 from Texas A&M University Press.
"I would describe this as nature writing through a lens of art and art-making," Paris said. She considered what she wanted to say about the woods and the experience of working there for several years, along with completing the paintings.
"The idea of doing it through a narrative that tracks the seasons, which was also the way the original exhibition was organized, seemed to make sense to me," Paris said. "I wanted the book to be about something bigger than just the fact I had created these paintings. I wanted the experience of being in the woods — of looking at them through the lens of art and art-making to really be the focus of the book."
Hence, this book is not about how to paint. Rather, it's about the "why" of it.
The science of how memory works is important, as is the concept of time, which becomes a character in her book, she explains.
She talks about art history, but also naturalist writers like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, plus poets like Robert Frost. They remain literary influences that shape her art.
"That felt important to me to talk about," Paris said.
Add metaphor to the list of characters that appear in her writing. Discussing her time spent in the woods becomes a narrative on which to hang such material about her influences and "the concepts that inform my work both as a writer and as an artist," she explained.
What did she find physically to focus on in the Lennox Woods? Narrative passages are separate from the exposition in her book, where she might talk about history or science.
"The format of doing that is kind of a standard format for nature writing," Paris said. An example is that Dillard book.
"The narrative parts were partly to describe what season, what happened in the woods, the idea of the change and also the timelessness of the woods," Paris said. "Things were constantly changing and on a scale that we don't really comprehend because the changes are almost imperceptible to us, which is a concept that I talk about in the book called forest time."
When we are in the woods, we are there with things that live longer than we do, trees that may live a couple of hundred years in a place like Lennox Woods. Some live longer, if allowed.
"Your perception of time and your own understanding of time and of change is very different because you don't have that much time," Paris said. We may see obvious changes, such as a tree dying after it's struck by lightning or seasonal transformations, but other changes we cannot see.
"I think part of it is recognizing that you're in the company of a different kind of time zone, if you will," Paris said.
She didn't want to be an objective recorder of nature, though.
"Knowing something and understanding the motif requires sustained observation, and it's something that unfortunately many people are not willing to do in the world that we live in today I think that was the other main theme of the book, is that I came to the woods to paint them. But in order to do that the way that I wanted to do it, I had to feel part of that, I had to feel part of it," Paris said. "I didn't want to be simply an observer. I wanted to be a participant in the life of the forest, and to find my place within it as opposed to simply looking at it like something outside myself "
Hence, descriptive portions are really about discovering the things that made the woods real, that made her feel part of it all, she said.
"In order to do that, I had to study a lot of things. I had to learn many things, but I also had to be present day after day and spend a tremendous amount of time simply observing and being a part of what was happening on a daily basis," Paris said, noting this process evoked memories, another facet of the book.
Why write about Lennox Woods? It not only provided a pivotal moment in her creative life, but it also allowed her a way to discuss other ideas that inform her work. She's written about this in other, shorter formats.
"I wanted to be able to leave this book as a record of what is important to me in my work, what are my goals for my work and what are the major ideas that inform my work," Paris said. "Lennox Woods was a perfect template for that, for all of that."
Works by Paris have been shown at Laguna Art Museum, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa and other locations.
Four years ago, a selection of some of her paintings depicting Lennox Woods were shown at Texarkana's Regional Arts Center. Her Lennox Woods paintings were originally shown at a venue in Fort Worth.
"Some of the paintings are in the book. There are a few paintings that are newer paintings, ones that have completed since then," said Paris, who lives in a small community outside of Clarksville called Mabry, which is 10 miles from Lennox Woods.
Lennox Woods, which has been studied by botanists and zoologists, is owned by The Nature Conservancy, which protects these 1,400 acres fed by waters of the Pecan Bayou. According to The Nature Conservancy's website page about the woods, they were protected by the Lennox family for four generations.
(On the net: deborahparis.com and tamupress.com. The paperback book is $35 and available by calling 1-800-826-8911.