“The Cēsis Dream Tree” is the third installation of Project: 100 Dream Trees, and located in the town of Cēsis, Latvia. It was created during my participation at Rucka Residency from April 15 to May 20, 2019.
Find it here: Cēsis City 3rd Pre-School Educational Institution, Noras iela 15, Cēsis, Cēsu pilsēta, LV-4101, Latvia
(This mural is not open to the public, but during the school months, the gate is unlocked during school hours on weekdays, so if you’re brave enough you can go in and take a look at the mural.)
Welcome to Cēsis, Latvia!
This town is a 2.5-hour train ride from Rīga, and is known for Cēsis Castle, a medieval building from the 13th century, which many tourists come to visit on day trips from Rīga.
According to Wikipedia, Cēsis is home to 18,000 people, though when I was there for five weeks, the artists and I barely saw people out and about in the town. The cafes and restaurants were empty most of the time, and while you’ll see more people sitting outside during sunnier warmer days, most of the time we wondered: Where are all the people? (Later we were told that the real population count was more like 7,000 as people have been leaving the town for better prospects elsewhere.)
One evening while we were at our favorite haunt (the local brewery Trimpus), we met a guy in his late 20’s, a father to a three-year-old girl, who told us that he only makes 3 euros per hour packaging vegetables for delivery. If he were to get a similar job in Norway (which he had been looking into and considering at the time), they’d pay him 18 euros per hour. Thus many people from the small towns and villages of Latvia have been moving away for this same reason – that there were better job opportunities in the capitol Rīga, and other cities in Europe.
Despite this trend, Cēsis still remains a quiet, beautiful urban place to raise a family, and a large number of residents are families with young children.
A Closer Look – Some Landmarks
During my first week here, I went for a walk around the town, and wandered into a large park (Castle Park) where I saw this amazing view of Cēsis Castle:
I didn’t actually visit the castle until my final evening in Cēsis (I just kept thinking I had time to see it and then I got busy with the mural, and then it was soon my last day lols).
That evening happened to be Museum Night, and among the various art exhibitions and art and theater programs, entrance to the castle grounds was also free. This was the first time I saw so many people in Cēsis, though they may have been from the nearby towns and villages. Nonetheless it was rather surreal to see the usually quiet old town center come to life with people walking on the streets, and enjoying the festivities in the castle grounds.
On regular days during the summer months, you’ll find people dressed as medieval characters manning stalls where you can try your hand at activities such as smithing and candle-making.
It was only on this last evening in Cēsis that I finally saw the view of the castle which I had painted into the Dream Tree mural, using a photo I had found from the Internet as reference.
In the above image of the mural, I’ve painted some steps between the castle and the Tree, leading down to water. This is a characteristic part of Castle Park, the park which can be found behind Cēsis Castle.
It’s believed that the Castle Park was designed by castle-owner K.G. von Sievers in the 18th century as a family recreation area with promenades.
From the park, it was the first time I had seen a Russian orthodox church:
And see the steps on the left side of the above photo? This is where they lead to:
St John’s Church
Another important landmark in this town, like most other European towns, is the church in the old town square. This one is called St John’s Church, named after John the Baptist.
Here’s my version of St John’s Church:
Drinking is one of the pasttimes in Cēsis, and while it’s not legal to walk around and drink your alcohol, sometimes you’ll see people sitting and drinking at the abandoned railway station at the edge of the town center, or in the park across the railway tracks.
For the artists and myself, Bar Trimpus became our primary drinking place (and probably our second home in Cēsis), ever since we found out about them during our second weekend here. Their self-brewed beer is delicious, as well as their Skuju Cola, which is brewed from pine needles (I don’t drink alcohol so this was my go-to drink at Trimpus every time). And the owners and regulars are around our age (late 20’s to 40’s), and everyone is so friendly and chill, and soon enough we found ourselves here pretty much every night they were open (Thursday to Saturday evenings).
Trimpus a very small bar in the basement of this yellow building, with enough seats inside for about 20 people or so. In the warmer months (which is like 18 degrees C), they’d set up tables and chairs outside for people to sit at the side of the road.
Here’s a photo taken by Kristine, a found-objects artist from Canada, of us hanging out by the road outside Trimpus.
And who are these artists I’ve been mentioning? They were my fellow artists-in-residence who attended Rucka Residency together from April 15 to May 20 (though we arrived and left and varying times).
Rucka Residency (pronounced “root-ska”) can be found in the park at the edge of the town center, on the other side of the railway tracks when you arrive at Cēsis’ train station. Which means we have to cross the railway tracks each time we want to walk into town.
The big house which is now home to Rucka Residency and their various summer school art programs is also historically important in the town of Cēsis.
Here’s a view from the backyard of the house:
This 100-year-old house has ten bedrooms, two shower rooms, three toilets, a kitchen, a large dining room, a photography lab, a multi-media editing studio, and a large veranda which they use for events, and where we hang out sometimes at the house.
According to the residency coordinator Līna, this house used to be a hospital for tuberculosis patients. Even years after the hospital was closed, people still avoided coming near the house or even walking too close by it, for fear they might catch the disease. (Perhaps they may also fear that it’s haunted from the patients who may have died here.
Here’s the front of the house:
On Day 2 of painting this Dream Tree mural, it was a cold grey rainy windy Friday (and one of the worst days I experienced here in Cēsis). Thankfully there’s a little shelter above the wall, and I was mostly protected from the rain while working.
However, the part of the wall where I had painted Rucka still got rained on, and the rainwater prevented the paint from drying, and even caused it to run a little.
At first the perfectionist in me was annoyed – that I’d have to clean up the running paint, and repaint later, that things weren’t going the way I had expected.
But when I returned to the mural after the weekend, I realized it looked like a work-in-progress, like a painting that wasn’t finished, and it was quite apt to represent the artists and their practice (which is always a work in progress). Thus I included a penguin painting this house, to represent the artists who have attended this residency program, and more to come in future.
How This Dream Tree Came About
Speaking of Rucka Residency, perhaps now is a good time to share with you how this Dream Tree came about. Because even when I had spent my first night in Cēsis, this Dream Tree actually wasn’t supposed to happen.
You see, after I attended my first artist residency and painted the first Dream Tree in Spain last year (June 2018), I was on a high from having manifested the possibility of traveling the world while working as an artist, and I wanted more. Thus I applied to as many residencies as I could, not because I wanted to paint more Dream Trees (that idea came months later), but rather to increase my chances of having more opportunities to go abroad.
The first acceptance
Rucka was one of the first places I applied to after returning from Spain in August 2018, and according to their website, they are big on sustainability, and preferred projects that incorporated this. To make my application as desirable to them as possible, I threw together some proposal about collecting used disposable plates, cups and utensils from the townspeople, to produce an installation or exhibition that was a commentary of how in modern dating we use and dispose of people. (I had explored dating using apps while in Spain, and was quite disillusioned with how people didn’t seem to care about who the other person really is but just wanted someone to meet their needs, and then they move on). In October 2018, I received news that I had been accepted into Rucka’s Spring 2019 program, my first residency of 2019.
In the meantime the idea of “Project: 100 Dream Trees” appeared, and by April 2019, I had completed Dream Tree No. 2 in Singapore, and was accepted to two more residencies after Rucka to paint two more Dream Tree murals. Thus I was no longer aligned to the idea I had originally proposed for Rucka, and I wrote to ask if I could change my proposal, that instead of the installation as a commentary on modern dating, I’d install “The Forgotten Dream Tree”, a temporary structure about how we’ve forgotten our dreams, or something like that. (I honestly don’t remember what kind of nonsense I was trying to spew just not to lose my spot in the program, and I also didn’t know then that most residencies don’t expect the accepted artists to stick to the original proposal).
To my relief, Līna responded that the new idea was fine, and soon enough I showed up in Cēsis rather confused and apprehensive about how I was going to pull this off, and feeling like I wasn’t as much of an artist compared to everyone else (another story for another time).
Then on our third day there we went for a walk around the town, and I saw a large mural on the side of a building, painted by Olliemoonsta as part of Rucka 2018:
If Olliemoonsta painted her mural as part of Rucka Residency, maybe I could actually paint a Dream Tree mural too!
Excited, I approached Līna with the idea, and thus began the process of me hunting for possible walls, while she liaised with the town council for possible locations for this project.
Too short notice
The second week went by without news of a possible wall, because everything in the old town and town center was protected and untouchable. Then Līna came to me saying the town council had proposed I do something with the local kindergarten, because they had walls in good condition, and they would be more open to a community mural project, and on such short notice, this was probably the best deal I could get.
I got the address of the kindergarten, and throughout the 25 minutes of walking there from Rucka, I hoped they’d have a wall that was along the street, something that was still viewable by the general public. To my disappointment not only was the kindergarten in a very quiet residential neighborhood, its outside “wall” was a green wire fence that enclosed its grounds, and the school building itself was in the middle of this large land and some distance away from the fence and gate.
(I didn’t take photos of the kindergarten, and there aren’t many pictures of the school online, but here is a picture of the building taken from somewhere within its very large grounds. Coming from an overly built-up city like Singapore, I was amazed to see such a huge building and grounds for a kindergarten. And each classroom had a room with beds in it, one bed for each child! I really want to be one of the kids attending this school lols)
I had to tell Līna that this wasn’t possible, and went walking around the town yet again to find more possible walls. Less than three weeks till this residency ended and I still didn’t have a place to install my Dream Tree…
A happy coincidence?
Interestingly, a few days later, the artists went early to Trimpus to hang out, while I stayed at home to finish some work before joining them. When I arrived two hours after they had left, they told me excitedly how they met an architect from the town council, who apparently was the person Līna had been liaising with.
The architect told them that on such short notice, the kindergarten was the best option, not only because of the reasons I’ve stated earlier, but also because the local community of Cēsis consisted mostly of children and young parents who spent most of their time in their neighborhood where the school was. Thus the best place to engage the local community wasn’t some building in the old town, but rather the school that children and parents visit almost every day (at least during the school term).
I was hesitant, and insisted I needed a public wall, which the kindergarten didn’t have. Then Lucia, a performance artist from Argentina, said something that struck me.
She said that this is what I’ve been offered, and if I want to paint the mural, I just have to accept what I’ve been given, and that’s how things are sometimes.
Missed opportunity or bonus?
I thought about it later that night, and realized that before coming to Cēsis I hadn’t even planned on doing a mural here, so even if I passed on this kindergarten wall, I wouldn’t have lost an opportunity for a Dream Tree mural anyway. Right now, this wall was a bonus, and even if I decided not to go ahead with it, there’s no loss on my end.
But if I were to take it, I would be one Dream Tree closer to my goal, I would have one more chance to figure out my overall project, and this would be one more opportunity for people to get connected to their dreams.
I also realized that sometimes I get so attached to the idea of how things should be, and when it doesn’t turn out the way I expect, I tend to completely reject it, instead of seeing how I can try and work with what I’ve got.
So I messaged Līna and said yes, and we arranged a meeting with the principal for the Wednesday that coming week.
A perfect blue wall
The wall was perfect, and a nice shade of blue. It’s also at the side of the building facing the path that leads to the main gate, where parents and children enter and approach the building, and they will see this wall every day.
Plus there was even some shelter above, which protected me from the sun for most of the day, and even when it was raining I could still work.
After meeting the wall, I could finally begin to design the Dream Tree mural.
The tree inspiration
Every single day at Rucka Residency, I look out my bedroom window and see this amazing oak tree outside. I’ve seen it bare during my first week at Rucka, all the way until the leaves finally emerged just a few days before I left.
Two years ago, just after the residency program for that year had ended, someone threw a Molotov cocktail through a window of the house, which caused a fire that destroyed part of the roof, the walls and the front wall in the middle section of the house. This fire had also spread to that small house-like structure I can see outside my window (in the photo above), and to the oak tree.
When I went outside to explore the grounds, I noticed that the oak tree is kind of lopsided with the branches mostly on one side of the trunk. You can see in the photo below that the right side of the tree doesn’t have branches:
Going over to the side of the tree without branches, I noticed a huge scorch mark on the bark, where it had caught on fire. This is most probably why the branches haven’t grown back.
Nonetheless, this beautiful tree has survived the fire, and is still standing today. There’s also a low sturdy branch that someone had put a ladder so you can climb up and sit in the tree.
Thus after seeing this tree outside my window every day for weeks, and knowing its story with the fire, it became my inspiration for The Cēsis Dream Tree.
Living in the Tree
Cēsis is a town with mostly young parents and their children, thus a number of activities in the town are catered for them.
Here you’ll see romantic couple penguins falling in love, going on picnic, and a family of penguins asleep. There’s also a platform with kid penguins in school, to represent the kindergarten and other local schools.
From my short stay here, I’ve observed that music seems to be a big part of Cēsis. There are two music schools for children and teenage students, and a very modern concert hall constructed in 2014.
This building also doubles up as the local cinema. There weren’t many screenings of the already few films shown here, but “Avengers: End Game” was on during my time in Cēsis, and it just so happened there were two screenings of the movie at local cinema! So three of the artists and I found ourselves here one Tuesday evening, in a small theatre filled with teenage boys, who were surprisingly rather well-behaved and quiet throughout the movie.
Cēsis is also known for two ski resorts, popular winter sport destinations in Latvia during the winter. I’ve included some skiing penguins to represent this:
On the third day of painting “The Cēsis Dream Tree”, the principal had helped to coordinate with the teachers of the kindergarten to bring the older group of kids to the wall to paint their dreams.
These were 6 to 7-year-olds, and they were all so adorable!
Alise, the other residency coordinator, was also there to assist with translations, and she ended up also having to assist me in putting paint on plastic plates for these kids to use.
There were two dogs, two cats, something that looked like the dragon from “How to Train Your Dragon” (the sequel had been released a few weeks before this day), three flowers, two cars, two dinosaurs, and six ponies.
And these two boys also painted Pokémon. Can you spot the Pikachu, and the Poké ball?
The kids really enjoyed themselves, and later in the afternoon when school was over, some brought their parents to the wall to show their painted dream.
Three of the artists (Kristine, Sarah and Gosha) also came to the kindergarten that morning, and together with Alise, added four more painted dreams to “The Cēsis Dream Tree”.
Here’s a closer look at the painted dreams after I’ve added in some penguins to tie them all together with the rest of the mural:
All the painted dreams at a glance:
A Cold and Windy Challenge
The Cēsis Dream Tree took me six days to complete, and it was a most challenging experience because of the weather. While it was May and we were entering the warmer months of the year, somehow on the day I started painting this mural, it decided to get really really really windy. And I’m not just saying that because I don’t normally spend so many hours outside – the other artists noticed as well that the weather had become more windy during those last 10 days at Rucka.
And it was a very cold wind, the kind that feels like it’s cutting through you, and each it time starts up, it continues blowing for some time. While I’m very grateful for a nice smooth beautiful blue wall with substantial shelter from sun and rain, nothing shielded me from this relentless, constantly blowing cold winds because this doorway was like a wind tunnel, and I was right smack in the middle of it.
Most of the time I wore gloves while painting, and most of the time I couldn’t feel my fingers, legs and face when I stopped to take a break. These days really tested my endurance, and after each day of work I had to walk 25 minutes in that windy weather back to Rucka, and by the time I arrived home I was exhausted and didn’t want to do anything else. The best weather was on the last day of work, where it was warmer and not as windy, and also on the third day during the “Paint-Your-Dream” session (but after the kids went back inside the wind acted up again and it was so cold. Such a tease, this weather lols).
With the strong wind I also had to watch where I placed my palette. I use plastic plates – it’s not the most environmentally friendly but so far it’s the easiest thing to use to get the job done. But with a single plastic plate, the wind can easily turn it over, and the paint gets everywhere. I’ve even had the wind blow it paint-side onto me, so my down jacket now has a permanent purple splat on it. But because of this, I learnt to stack a few plates and tape them together, so they are heavier and it’s less likely to get blown over by the wind.
Besides the uncooperative weather, the staff at the kindergarten were very helpful and friendly – from assisting me with storing my things in one of the classrooms (out of reach of the kids of course!), to unlocking the door to let me in to use the toilet, to bringing the garden hose to me so I didn’t have to walk too far or go indoors to change my paint water. (Thank you everyone for the support!)
What I’ve Learnt
If there’s only one thing I learnt from this Dream Tree in Cēsis, it’s that things don’t always go your way, and you can either quit or choose to make it work. From Day 1 at Rucka residency, many things were not at all what I had expected.
Probably the biggest challenge in the house was that the town’s central heating had been turned off, so it was freezing all the time inside the house, and especially so in the shower room. I think I’ve broken my record for fastest showers many times during that first week at Rucka.
I’ve also used two down jackets during this time – one to wear outside, and one to wear to sleep every night for the first three weeks.
Then there were little things like having to share common spaces with six or seven others, having to prepare my own meals with very little cooking expertise and shopping in an unfamiliar grocery store with unfamiliar brands for everything, and nothing was in English (So thankful for Google Translate).
And obstacles like not getting the public wall I had wanted, and for one week having to walk 25 minutes each day to the kindergarten, stand for 5-6 hours in between while braving those relentless cold winds, then walk 25 minutes back home…
And for some reason during this residency, I just kept feeling like a fraud, like I didn’t belong here, like I wasn’t a “real’ artist or a “good enough” artist, that my work wasn’t “artistic” enough… insecurities that I couldn’t seem to get over no matter how I tried.
Each step of the way I found myself longing for what I’m used to – for warmth (which I get pretty much all the time in Singapore), for things to go my way, for myself to feel more confident and comfortable around others. And each time I wished things could be different. Each time I tell myself: “It’s okay, this mural is extra anyway, I don’t have to do it.”
And each time I chose to go forward anyway. Just accept it for what it is, and make the best of it that I can. Just find a way to work with what I’ve been given, and what I already have. And each time I choose to continue, it turns out that things weren’t so bad after all, and I could adapt, and adjust, and make things work.
And because I chose to push through these challenges, and work step by step toward the goal I had set out, there’s now a third Dream Tree in the world – The Cēsis Dream Tree.
3 Dream Trees up, 97 more to go!
Check out the time-lapse making of “The Cēsis Dream Tree” on YouTube here:
- Rucka Residency (& Līna)
- Cēsis City 3rd Pre-School Educational Institution
- The 33 children collaborators
- Alise Peniga, Sarah Panell, Kristine Mifsud, Georgy “Gosha” Elaev