Most people sense there is something greater than themselves.
Ralph Schexnaydre got that feeling driving along La. 31 between Arnaudville and Breaux Bridge.
“About four years ago, I came across this grove of oak trees along Bayou Teche outside of Arnaudville,” the artist recalled. “It was during the sugar cane harvest and I was out ‘chasing smoke,’ looking for sugar cane fires to photograph. As I walked down a gully toward the bayou, I saw them, one with its roots exposed, like large fingers penetrating the earth.
“I became quiet. The place felt like a cathedral.”
It became his “Sacred Trees,” and he has been photographing them since.
“The statue of Mary wasn’t there originally,” Schexnaydre said. “Then two or three weeks ago, she was. Someone had placed her there.
“Mary’s keeping the snakes away,” he added with a laugh.
The Bible abounds with mentions and metaphors of trees — Job, Revelations and the seventh chapter of Acts even refers to “the Church in the wilderness.” The idea of their sacredness is an old one.
A Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate with a specialization in photography from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Schexnaydre’s own roots can be traced to St. Rose, a small town in St. Charles Parish.
“The land just sticks to me,” he said. “As kids, we played in the woods. My dad knew how to work with wood. It was ingrained in me from an early age. I’ve always had a close connection to nature and a special spot in my heart for wood.”
The work is a continuation of his landscape photography, which he shows regularly in Lafayette galleries, including a University of Louisiana alumni exhibition last year.
“When I started doing it (Sacred Trees), I didn’t have any preconceived notion,” he said. “What I love about photography is the element of discovery.”
Schexnaydre’s work is hopeful.
“Growth, transformation, resilience — most oak trees not only survive lightning strikes, they thrive,” he said. “They became a metaphor for survival in the face of catastrophe; guardians and protectors of the area around them, their deep foundations keeping the earth intact. To me, they embody the spirit of the living earth.”
Every belief system, Schexdaydre said, has an element of wisdom.
“Native Americans and Buddhists do, that what is unknown is wrapped up in nature,” he said.
His own beliefs are an amalgam of Roman Catholicism and other religions acquired through experience.
His “Cemetery in the Sugarcane” contrasts nature’s verdancy with death and decay. In another piece, power lines and poles form an unmistakable if unintentional cross.
“St. Genevieve’s Crucifixion” is likewise an abstract assemblage of Masonite, canvas, tree root, fabric and steel, with a vinyl record forming the halo. The title itself is a collage.
“When I did that piece, it was a root that told me ‘do this, do that, do this.’ I was listening to (the band) Son Volt, and there’s a line in ‘Tear Stained Eye’ — ‘St. Genevieve can hold back the water.'”
The patron saint of Paris, St. Genevieve is also credited with holding back Attila the Hun and pestilence.
“She actually died of natural causes,” Schexnaydre said.
In addition to his photography, Schexnaydre currently works with muralist Robert Dafford.
“I do a lot of the grunt work, surface prep, he gives me things I can’t mess up. Since his fall, I’ve been doing more,” he said.
And while the grove of trees has been photographed over four years, it’s still ongoing.
“I’m going to continue to photograph and make sure people don’t cut them down,” Schexnaydre said. “Every year, development seems to get closer and closer.
“Like all things of this world, we are shaped by the forces of nature. We can be toppled by these forces, bent, broken, but there is always the possibility of overcoming and carrying on.”