Tree Hunter: Portrait of an American Artist

: Documentary
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production


Our film is the story of artist and naturalist Dennis Downes, who drives across America to protect and honor the last Native American Trail Trees. His art,including his public installations of trail tree sculptures, are powerful reminders of our ties to the land and its indigenous people.



“I am simply fascinated with what came before us and the beautiful and hostile surroundings in which people lived and survived.”

For forty years, Downes has pursued a mission to preserve the last Native American Trail Marker Trees. These trees, some of them as old as five hundred years, have been found in almost every state. They were intentionally shaped as saplings by tribes across North America as lifesaving guides to resources, villages and sacred grounds. Working with Native American and local communities, arborists, historians and politicians, Downes has helped identify and protect these living landmarks. He is the author of Native American Trail Marker Trees, Marking Paths through the Wilderness and the founder of the Great Lakes Trail Tree Society.

Downes’ art is inspired by his travels and by his love of the history of the Great Lakes region where he grew up. His successful art shows, both national and local, have allow him to continue his research and to give back to the community. He has initiated and designed living council circles with newly planted trail trees. His bronzed trail trees have been installed to honor Native American communities in Michigan and Illinois, including his hometown in Antioch, Illinois. His numerous paintings celebrate the beauty of nature and are often layered with historical references to the spiritual and animal worlds. For Dennis the process of creating his art is as important as the finished work. He often makes his paints and paper from native plants, and his original pieces have exquisite handmade frames inlaid with porcupine quills, shells and other natural materials.


Using stunning current and archival footage, our film takes you along on Dennis’ journeys and tells the story of a passionate and complex artist who has overcome many challenges for the sake of authenticity. He determinely pursues his art and trail tree research inspite of a long struggle with cancer.

We believe this is a significant untold and inspiring story that will have a wide appeal. We are currently in post production which is very costly so we are raising money to complete the film which is inteneded for broadcast television and cable streaming.  Any Donations made through the sponsorship of Gotham Film and Media Institute are tax deductible and very much appreciated.



Lesley Topping - Director, Producer

Lesley is filmmaker, writer, and editor for documentaries, feature films, shorts and multimedia presentations.  Since 2016, she has directed, written and edited 7 films for the Scarsdale Historical Society including a documentary on the history and recovery of the Bronx River. She edited Emmy award winning documentaries for the Cousteau Society Rediscovery series, and television programs for A&E, PBS, and CBS News. She has worked in post production on many features including  WHAT HAPPENED WAS directed by Tom Noonan, YEAR OF THE DRAGON and THE SICILIAN directed by Michael Cimino and STREAMERS directed by Robert Altman. 

Gary Donatelli - Producer

Gary and Dennis were friends at Glenbrook North High School in iIllinois and reunited filming Dennis's work and adventures His credits include directing soaps including ONE LIVE TO LIVE (1998-2011), ANOTHER WORLD, and GENERAL HOSPITAL. He also produced the feature film 23 BLAST directed by Dylan Baker. As a DP and camera operator he has shot numerous sports events and music video for artists including Neil Young, Madonna, Willie Nelson and many others.

Vanessa Procopio - Consulting Editor

Vanessa is an awarding winning editor with numerous credits in documentaries, features and television programs. Some of the extensive credits include GENIUS (Aretha Franklin), THE GET DOWN, MAKING OF THE MOB, Egg the Art Show and many documentaries for Bill Moyers.

Trish Dalton - Consulting Producer

Trish Dalton is an award winning independent director/producer. With a focus on social issues and the arts, several of her documentaries have been used as tools for change. Trish was named one of People magazine’s ten “Women Changing the World in 2020” for directing the HBO Sports documentary STUDENT ATHLETE and encouraging legislative change at the federal and state level to protect college athlete’s rights. Her film credits include STUDENT ATHLETE, ELECTION YEAR, BORDERING ON TREASON, SOUTHMOST U.S.A., ONE NIGHT STAND, and KERAS & MANIS. Her documentaries have broadcast on PBS, HBO and Ovation after screening at dozens of film festivals, including: SXSW, Miami, Boston Independent, Denver Starz, Nashville, True/False, DOC NYC, Full Frame, and Tribeca. Find links to her work on her site:


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