prehistoric to present – forests from the trees

Tree of 40 Fruit, 2008 - present

Recently I was at an event where a beautiful tree by artist, Sam Van Aken, was being auctioned off to benefit Creative Capital. It was not in full flourish yet, but still a young green leafy growth with 20 varieties of stone fruit grafted: a technique whereby tissues from one plant are inserted into those of another so that the two sets of vascular tissues may join together. This vascular joining is called inosculation, and allows for asexual propagation of related species.

The process takes years for Sam to work with his plants to cultivate these sculptures that have a life of their own.

Sam with one of his hybrid trees, 2013

Here is a description, in his own words, about this hybridization and interdisciplinary project.

 The Tree of 40 Fruit is an ongoing series of unique hybridized fruit trees. Blossoming in variegated tones of pink and white in spring, through a process of sculpting by way of grafting and pruning, each tree in this series has the capacity to grow 40 varieties of fruit from the family of stone fruits including peach, plum, apricot, nectarine, and cherry, and will reach an approximate size of 20’ tall with a canopy of 20’.


The Tree of 40 Fruit are allegorical sculptures. As a symbolic number found throughout western religion, culture, and government, the number 40 symbolizes the infinite, a bounty that is beyond calculation. Like the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, these trees are a potential; they are the beginning of a narrative that transforms the site they are located in. The far-reaching implications of these sculptures include issues of genetic engineering, biodiversity versus food monoculture, and, ultimately, the symbiosis of humankind’s relation to nature. 


One of the most challenging aspects of the work is the planning or envisioning of how each graft, time of blossom, and fruiting will change the aesthetic and balanced quality of the tree. It is at this point that the process becomes sculptural. Nature poses a challenging collaborator. Where a bronze sculpture would provide an easier ally, working with living material can be temperamental. But it is this living quality that I feel gives the tree its greatest impact and potential.


The innate challenge of attempting to effect an aesthetically directed and functional “lifestyle” for multiple organisms without overshadowing nature’s voice within each tree is a microcosm of the perennial, universal quest for balance in uncertainty.  This is the same story with Living Sea Sculptures.  Although I have yet to begin “pruning” the aquatic topiary-like forms, I’m thinking of how to bridge the divide between destructive human desires, needs, actions and constructive organic ecosystems. Artists who work with other beings that don’t speak in words are blurring the lines of art, science, and technology as they develop interspecies projects and dialogues.  I’m in awe of the quiet partners, since they’ve been around for so many thousands, or millions, of years, and in relation to them, we are Earth dwelling novices exploring their unique reproduction and life-giving bounty.

Now, to share a quick look into our ancient tree-lined past.  In case you haven’t heard of the primeval forest in the waters of Alabama, it dwarfs our relatively new research into collaborating with living nature.  Buried for years without Oxygen, it has persisted with its Cypress smell intact.  In 2005, Hurricane Katrina most likely ripped back the protective layers of sand and sediment to reveal this 50,000 year old forest.  One person suggests it has been in the ocean for 12,000 years; most accounts I find say it is estimated at 50,000 years old, but as you see in the video, it is not long for this exposed world.

Something about unexpected ancient forests surviving in the ocean juxtaposed with a 40 stone-fruit forest springing from one tree…I can’t stop thinking of Thoreau’s quote that I saw this past week while helping a friend wrap up his mother’s, Barbara Rothenberg’s, artwork at her studio.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”- Henry David Thoreau

Coral Restoration: Chinese New Year

What’s colorful and reminds us that old and new, life and death, are inextricably bound together by the continuum of change?  Chinese New Year Day celebration, for one.

Dancer at Water Snake celebration in Chinatown New York

We have entered the year of The Water Snake.

Chinese characters for "Water Snake"

Intuitive depths, feminine wisdom, and transformation are possible associations with the year of the snake, as well as good business ability and reserved emotions.  Symbolism and mythology within historical traditions vary from region to region, and first-hand experience offers subtle rich surprises, like this beautiful new-fallen drift in Chinatown brightly adorned  with “snowfetti.”


I tried the various street food; how can you get 4 of anything for $1?!?  Didn’t get sick (not that I thought I would, but a friend was wary), and loved watching the women dance in outfits that reminded me of the brilliance of a healthy reef.

Dancer amidst the biodiverse crowd

It is a Water year – contemplation and healing actions from the calm depths are worth imagining.  According to Alison Rourke’s article in theguardian, “Deepwater corals may be key to restoring damaged reefs…”

Here in New York, I aim to make an interactive land exhibit that will correlate human health and coral health. After watching the magician and scientists yesterday at Brainwave: The Magician and listening to their explanations and demonstrations of deception (lies) and limited attention capabilities as the crux of successful magic and trickery,  I saw how the exhibit I’m developing is really about creating the perception of unity between the participant and the kinetic sculptures.  The sculptures are not actually living, but I want them to appear alive, symbiotically effected (dependent) on a human action and data. Just as the magician needs the audience to complete the mystery and suspend disbelief, to be washed over with happy bafflement, some art relies on specific constructs and concepts to open people’s minds to shifts in reality through the senses and fallacy of what we think we know to be true.  Art is often said to be a portal to truth, and now I’m thinking how certain special effects and technical mediums offer new forms of “magic” to contemporary art practices that I want to explore. But what about truth?

My day started out with ritual in a grand cathedral.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine. photo by Nat Ireland

Thanks to a friend, I was introduced to a magnificent architectural, cultural, and historical mouth-dropping feat of making. I can’t help that I spent most my time while there looking at all the windows (really? they need to be restored?) and the labor intensive cement castings, metalwork…It houses one of the most powerful pipe organs in the world!  Awe-inspiring environment – the space and the effort to create it was, for me, the magic and the spiritual gift as I flashed back to 1892 when its foundation was being laid… During the sermon I felt that truth was being suffocated with someone telling everyone what God is and isn’t.

Magic is predicated on deception, religion on truth (according to magician, Joshua Jay, yesterday). I got hung up on some religious hypocrisy,  but I knew that it was a celebration, too, of life, death, restoring and seeking.  I just needed to get into the sun and find the warm light of day and connect with playful exuberance: How lucky to jump into so many colorful and curious perceptions in a single afternoon.





Living Cities

The growth of Biorock mineral accretion sculptures in the ocean conjures up images of cities; not only are architects fascinated by the building potential of culling limestone minerals from seawater to create incredible evolving formations, but anyone thinking about habitats of all kinds imagine how they will accumulate life and generate tributaries of interaction.  Coral cities, urban landscapes, seascapes…whether visible or invisible, the concept of efficiency, necessity and organic mystery can come together in a city.

This living wall in de zeen magazine about “biological concrete” is an example of how biological growth is becoming an integral part of contemporary buildings. Ecology is fundamental in the design.

Living walls

New concrete that captures rainwater to create living walls of moss and fungi

 “The material lends itself to a new concept of vertical garden, not only for newly built constructions, but also for the renovation of existing buildings. Unlike the current vegetated façade and vertical garden systems, the new material supports biological growth on its own surface; therefore, complex supporting structures are not required, and it is possible to choose the area of the façade to which the biological growth is to be applied.”

The carbon sequestering, living adornments may soon flourish, bringing nature and urban together for you to pause at the emerald and chartreuse skyscrapers on a busy street.

Addendum – A New York Times article, The Beauty of Bacteria, by Julie Lasky on January 16th, takes us even further towards the vital and fantastical Emerald City.