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Art Made to Decay

By Lindsay Maizland | 1/28/16 1:36pm | Updated 5/14/16 12:59pm
Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

With towering rainbows made of thousands of thin strings, mountains comprised of stacked index cards, and rolling hills built with old tires, the Renwick Gallery’s WONDER exhibit challenges visitors to let their imaginations take over and see ordinary objects in a completely new way.

Artist John Grade’s “Middle Fork,” a horizontally-suspended hollow tree sculpture, is no exception. The roughly 45-foot piece is made of hundreds of thousands of tiny repurposed cedar blocks, each the size of a person’s thumb. Visitors squeeze between the sculpture and the gallery’s walls to get a view of the tree from all angles, looking through the bottom root flare and ducking beneath the branches. But what makes the sculpture even more awe-inspiring is that it is an exact replica of a living, 140-year-old western hemlock tree that currently stands near the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington.

“I think it’s really incredible to think of the tree standing in the woods and it’s solid… but here you can look inside and really investigate the structure,” said Gregory Huse, the main speaker in a Renwick gallery talk last Wednesday.

Huse, an arborist and tree collection manager for Smithsonian Gardens, shared how “Middle Fork” is a crossroads of art, nature and ecology. He offered insight to an audience of more than 80 people on the artist’s creative process and also discussed research on the changing state of forests around the U.S.

The creation process

“I know something about trees. I’m not the artist, but I’ll do my best,” said Huse as he started flipping through powerpoint slides projected on the museum’s Grand Salon tall, white walls.

The “Middle Fork” project began in April 2014 when Grade and a team of 10 people climbed the chosen hemlock’s branches, suspended by a special harness system set up by trained arborists, and wrapped the tree in plaster. Covering the tree was the most difficult part of the process and took several weeks, according to Huse who talked extensively with artist Grade over the phone.The team then removed the hardened plaster in sections and transported the cast back to the Mad Art studio in Seattle.

Grade captured his art philosophy in “Middle Fork”: projects should involve a large group of people, as Huse explained in the gallery talk. Once the Mad Art team secured the cast’s different sections, they literally opened the studio’s doors to passers-by to come in and help create the art piece. Visitors were invited to grab a handful of cedar blocks and a bottle of environmentally friendly glue and work on their own section of the sculpture. Some stayed for hours, others returned days later to continue.

“Volunteers were a huge part of this,” said Huse. “[The project] was a great and creative way to engage the public in his art.”

Once the entire cast was covered with wood pieces, it was carefully removed and the shape of the tree was left intact. The sculpture depicts the tree at one moment in time, kind of like a photograph. The cast no longer fits the tree because the tree continues to grow, said Huse.

Returning the sculpture to its roots

Normally when a piece of art is finished being displayed, it can either become a part of a museum’s permanent collection, purchased by an art collector or disposed of in a landfill. Grade believes in a different philosophy: art should be created from natural materials and should be returned to nature when its time is up.

After “Middle Fork” is taken off display from the Renwick Gallery in May and is shown at different venues around the country, it will be returned to the base of the same tree in the forest to moss-over, decompose and eventually disintegrate. Once it decays, the sculpture will offer nutrients for the tree to keep growing. It’s kind of a way of saying “thank you” to the tree for cooperating with the artist’s vision. The entire process of decay will be captured by time-lapse and motion sensor cameras. “It’s a full cycle of life,” said Huse.

“No tree is bulletproof”

Other than discussing the art piece itself, Huse also touched upon the implications of climate change on U.S. forests. As warm zones continue to move north, the changes can have a real effect on the biodiversity and plant species found in different regions. Seventy percent of tree species could move north in upcoming years. Alterations in temperature, precipitation, season length and other factors can all reduce a tree’s survivability, according to Huse. “No tree is bulletproof,” he said.

Students interested in learning more about D.C.’s forests and the effects of climate change on trees should volunteer or apply to intern with Smithsonian Gardens. Volunteering for Casey Trees, an organization working to “restore D.C.’s canopy” by hosting regular tree plantings, is another way for students to give back.


The Renwick will be hosting John Grade, the artist himself, on Feb. 28 at 2:00 p.m. See more details here: