Julianne Skai Arbor has always loved trees. Growing up in the flat and treeless Midwest, she says she was born with an affection for trees that was just waiting to take root.
When she moved to the Bay Area for graduate art school in 1993 and experienced California’s grand wild places, Arbor’s inner yearning blossomed and she became TreeGirl, her arboreal alter ego.
For 20 years, Arbor has been traveling the globe, encountering majestic trees and photographing nude self-portraits among them. These stunning images are accompanied by revealing personal essays and more in her new book, TreeGirl: Intimate Encounters with Wild Nature.
Arbor releases the book with a launch party that includes a gallery showing, a reading, live music and food and refreshment made exclusively from trees on Jan. 15 at Occidental Center for the Arts.
Arbor’s first transformative experience with trees was on a post-college, three-month walkabout in Australia where she saw two small trees that seemed to be dancing together.
“I wasn’t on anything,” she jokes, “but I saw these trees and was overcome with this need to be part of them, to be with them. I was traveling with a friend. I took my clothes off, handed him a camera, intertwined with the trees and said, ‘Take my picture.'”
That was the beginning. Arbor says in that moment she found her art form, her spiritual practice and her joy. She followed up that first trip by studying the many impressive species of trees in Northern California, from the redwood and sequoia to the oak and bristlecone pine.
“We’re so fortunate to have some of the most amazing trees in the world right here,” says Arbor, who has lived in Sonoma County for 16 years.
Arbor, who is also a certified naturalist and conservation educator, soon started seeking out the biggest, most unusual trees in the world, such as the African baobab pictured on the cover of the new book, a seven-trunked, 2,000-year-old tree known as the “Seven Sisters” by locals in Botswana.
The decision to photograph herself nude with the trees was inspired by artist Georgia O’Keeffe and the nude photography she did with Alfred Stieglitz in the 1920s. “It gave me a place to feel comfortable in my body,” says Arbor.
Arbor says that TreeGirl is her way of showing that there is no separation between human beings and nature. “The message of the book is that we are nature, and we forget that in our modern world,” she says. “I want to remind people about our ancient bond with the wild and invite them to reconnect with it.”