Tree Hunter: Portrait of an American Artist

: Documentary
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production



Our film is a moving story of a tenacious American artist. Dennis Downes, whose life’s work has brought us a deeper understanding of our forgotten indigenous past and ties to the natural world.


Artist and explorer, Dennis Downes has spent a lifetime inspiring communities to protect the last living trees expertly shaped by indigenous people for centuries across North America. These trees were mostly contorted at right angles to the ground pointing to important destinations, portage routes, and life saving resources. Our film follows Downes as he traverses the country in his beat-up truck to discover the trees and the people who preserved them. 

We weave the legacy of the trail trees with the story of a determined artist who pursued his passions inspite of difficult challenges. He has earned the respect of Native American elders, local communities, historians and environmentalists for furthering the knowledge of the trail trees. His art which includes public installations of bronze trail trees and newly planted council circles have engaged whole communities to reconnect with their local histories. Downes is the author of Native American Trail Trees, Marking Paths through the Wilderness and the founder of The Great Lakes Trail Tree Society. The Society receives hundreds of emails from tree spotting enthusiasts and Downes follows up on the ones he believes might be authentic. 

Sporting a long white handlebar mustache, wearing a black leather vest and cowboy boots, Downes seems to have stepped out of the 19th century. Born in 1951, Dennis grew up on the "poor side” of Northbrook, a suburb outside of Chicago. The forest was his playground and he became fascinated with the distinctively bent Trail Trees that were well documented in his area since the 1800's. As a young man Downes decided to follow up on the work of earlier naturalists. He was further encouraged to study Native American cultures by his aunt in law, a member of the Cherokee Nation. 

Downes worked multiple jobs, often struggling to get by, before becoming a successful artist with a loyal following. His home studio is a rambling 100-year-old house, in constant need of repair, on the Chain O’Lakes in Antioch, Illinois. In the fire pit in his backyard, Downes cooks his own paints and makes his own paper from native plants. Many of his prolific paintings and sculptures have been inspired by his travels and research. Compelled to understand how people once survived, he is an expert archer making his own finely decorated arrows and spears. 

During our filming, Dennis was diagnosed with stage four cancer. In spite of regular harsh chemotherapy treatments, he continued to create new work, discover more trail trees and build a beautifully crafted log cabin on a remote island. In February of 2024, his condition worsened. He spent his last days in his art studio home with his wife, Gail Spreen, where they had a constant stream of friends and family visitors. He continued to plan the final installation of his latest trail tree sculptures in a rewilded field along Lake Michigan in collaboration with the Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians. 

Our film is an inspired story of a much loved regional artist whose life work and art has reached around the United States and beyond. 






We combine a rich archive of newly filmed material and interviews, with stunning images and video that Dennis has recorded himself over the years.This film explores the mystery of the trails trees and tells the story of a passionate complex artist who has overcome many challenges for the sake of authenticity.

This documentary is intended for wide release through film festivals, broadcast television, theatrical, museum and community screenings. We are currently editing the film and raising funds to complete post productions which is very costly. Your donations are greatly appreciated and are tax deductionable through the sponsorship of the Gotham Film and Media Institute.

If you prefer to send a check please contact Lesley Topping for the Gotham donation form that needs to filled out. Thank you for your support and interest.



Lesley Topping - Director, Producer

Lesley is filmmaker, writer, and editor for documentaries, feature films, shorts and multimedia presentations.  Her recent films includes  A RIVER OF OUR OWN: A history of the  Bronx River and she has written and directed many community films for the Scarsdale Historical Society. She edited Emmy award-winning documentaries for the Cousteau Society and television programs for A&E,PBS,and CBS News. In post production, she has worked 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.

Randy Ostrow - Consulting Producer

Randy Ostrow was Senior VP of Production at October Films and Executive VP of Production at USA films. He has produced numerous feature films including BASQUIAT directed by Julian Schnabel, STATE OF GRACE starring Ed Harris, Gary Oldman and Sean Penn, and Boaz Yakin's film, FRESH. In 2014 Randy recieved the Bingham Ray Spirit Award at Showeast.




Connect With The Filmmakers:


The Gotham Film & Media Institute - Fiscal Sponsorship Program 2024


Help promote my fundraising campaign
Put our donation widget on your website

Get Widget Code



The Gotham Logo


© 2024 The Gotham. All Rights Reserved.
   Design by Andrew Martin

The Gotham Film & Media Institute is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to finding, developing and celebrating the people and projects that shape the future of story.

Learn more about us or become a member