A paper forest

Laminated ink

Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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It’s not really about perfecting every leaf.

I sat on a cold stool, studying my middle school art teacher as she paraded around the front of the classroom. With every wave of her hand, something resembling magic emitted from her marker and onto the whiteboard, whether it be a symmetrical circle or a five-minute self-portrait. That day, we were learning how to draw a tree. Something so basic and straightforward, yet outcomes range from two lines to a watercolor paradise. I believed my teacher when she explained how drawing trees could help you find peace in the midst of chaos. I liked that idea.

Hastily, I did my best to follow her steps. Echoes of my teacher’s voice clouded my thoughts: Make sure the trunk isn’t too big, begin with long branches, then short ones, remember that all extended lines must converge into one. With all these memos circulating through my mind, I began. Spirited in my efforts to advance out of my elementary drawing abilities, I sketched the first few leaves with precision. Only with three taking frail life on my paper, I knew that it would take hours to cover the tree’s entirety. Knowing this, I worked diligently. I wanted to ensure that every leaf was simply perfect and nothing less.

It took me five days to finish sketching this one tree. The process went uninterrupted as I breezed through grocery store aisles and vendor booths with my drawing in hand. At every pause my mother took when deciding to buy this or that, I sketched in a few more lines. The possibilities of drawing leaves dancing in the wind, shriveling in a blinding sun or blossoming in time for spring, uplifted me. I didn’t want to have any distractions. 

The long-awaited time came for my art teacher to check our final product. When she came by my desk, her face wore dissatisfaction. While my tree was finely detailed, it wasn’t what she wanted. But instead of critiquing my drawing itself, she posed a different question. She asked me to reflect if I ruined the experience of creating something so mundane by hyperfocusing on just one part of it: the leaves. 

I went home with her words replaying in my head. Skeptical on her outlandish claims, I attempted to test her hypothesis by purposely disregarding those pesky leaves. This time, it took me forty minutes to finish. Sure, it was easy to complete and less time-consuming, but it wasn’t flawless. Now, realizing my faulty perfectionist pattern as it manifested in front of me, I tried again. 

My teacher conveyed an invaluable lesson to me that day. At the time, my middle school self couldn’t comprehend her request of simply letting go of the little things. Seven years and hundreds of 2D trees later, I do now. 

Over time, I adopted my teacher’s philosophy more and more. And with every new drawing I create, my state of mind renews. As I trace my pencil-leaded fingers through eraser shreds and unspiraled spiral notebooks, I realize that these trees have a deeper purpose of their own, one that births serenity for the wandering and destructive mind.

Those trees of mine come in large or small, bare or full, living along the edges of my papers and the inner palm of my hands. They can be remedies to my heartaches or stepping stones against my setbacks. I’ll plant them in my calendars to preserve tomorrow’s peace. I’ll water them in my head to tell myself to not get caught up in every little thing. 

Because, you see, the rabbit hole of what if‘s can occupy my thoughts for days. I anticipate dates and deadlines I am helpless over and scare myself more than I should. I conjure up imaginary scenarios and fears, just to rehearse what I’d do in them. These episodes of exhausting myself over made-up situations are my real-life leaves. They add to nothing meaningful or significant but will capture my attention far more than I’d like. I know that in a few weeks, those moments amount to nothing, but still, I drain myself over them, falling deeper into a well of cyclical, bottomless worries until it all finally blows over.

So, I don’t want to focus on just the leaves. Instead, I’ll admire the tree’s entirety, the bigger picture of all that I’ve come across and all I’ve yet to find. Truthfully, I’ve allowed myself to believe that flawlessness existed and that I could somehow achieve it. But, really, there is no such thing. It’s unreasonable to chase an impossibility and twist in shame when I can’t grasp it. With every new tree reminding me of this, these paper forests rooted in me grow, grounding me from being swept away by life’s messy leaves and reassuring me that everything is going to be okay.

Ashley Tsai writes the Monday A&E column on art bridging the internal and the external. Contact her at [email protected].