If you live in the South Sound (or anywhere outside Seattle), it’s quite a trek into the city just to see a tree. But right now, there’s a tree in downtown Seattle that’s worth a pilgrimage. It’s inside a museum — the Seattle Art Museum — filling the enormous lobby. It’s also hanging mid-air. And it’s made of tiny bits of wood glued on by thousands of people in an homage to real trees that’ll expand your thinking like branches. It’s “Middle Fork,” an installation by Seattle artist John Grade, with a companion tree in the Davidson Galleries. You should go see it.
Whichever door you come in by, the tree will draw you close. There are benches dotting the museum’s cavernous Brotman Forum, but you won’t want to sit, not right away. You’ll want to wander beneath the enormous root ball, those knobby branches, feeling them gently sway from their forest of wire suspensions and gaping in awe at the sheer size.
“Middle Fork” is a sculpture modeled on a tree. Grade, who for decades has been fascinated by the microcosm of texture and pattern and by the big picture of natural form, went out to the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River and put a plaster cast onto a 140-year-old western hemlock. Peeled off, this cast became the support for a million tiny rectangles of reclaimed cedar, each just an inch or so wide and each individually sanded and shaped and measured. Then, in a project that began at MadArt studio in South Lake Union in 2015 as a 50-foot trunk and is now 105 feet, Grade (pronounced ‘grah-dee’) enlisted some 3,000 people to glue those bits onto the plaster in an undulating lattice pattern. Then the plaster was removed, and the tree sculpture — separated into 13 trunk sections — suspended horizontally in the lobby space.
The result is hypnotic. From a distance, the cedar lattice takes on the color and texture of a densely woven carpet or ant hill, in trunk form — a delightful trompe l’oeil. Up close, the offset grid of wooden shapes and spaces between opens up, breathing, translucent, suggesting egress between the world of the tree and the sterile world of white-walled human architecture.
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Walking around, metaphors enfold you. The root ball extends like a flower or an anemone, folding in on itself in sensuous curves. The branches reach thin fingers as if exploring the space. Devoid of leaves, color or small twigs, the tree’s inner form becomes the focus, echoing other large forms in nature: a coral reef, a river system, a cave. Cut abruptly, the open circles at each branch end seem vulnerable, like open wounds, a reminder of the death that humans routinely bring to trees in the name of improving the landscape or our own lives.
“Middle Fork” is huge. At 105 feet, the tree only just fits into the museum, and Grade intends to build another 50 feet to match the real tree’s height. And so it dwarfs you, reimagines you as a tiny creature scurrying beneath its roots, a mere cell in its ecosystem. Seen from above, though, in the gallery space, the tree is laid out in state, like a corpse.
Such a play on our self-perspective, our imagination and our relation to the natural world is possibly the most powerful thing about “Middle Fork.” As Grade puts it, museum spaces create a place for us to think about something reflectively.
“We all look at trees,” he says. “This isn’t a special tree, in the forest. But it becomes exceptional because of the devotion that’s been spent on it, and helps us to dwell on the natural world” in a way we probably wouldn’t while we’re actually in nature.
If you make the pilgrimage to “Middle Fork,” make sure you go to Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square, where Grade has a companion work: “Arctic Tree.” The sculpture was made in the same fashion, based on a poplar tree in Alaska that, stunted by Arctic conditions, is a mere 8 feet high. So you can get intimately close, following the lattice as it twists up from the roots like an old man.
Also in Davidson are Grade’s other projects: tree and lattice sketches stunning in their soft, wavy shadowing and perspective, glass floats (blown at the Museum of Glass) caged in salvaged-wood frames.
And here’s the other part to the “Middle Fork” story, which gives your relationship with these sculptures another heart-jolting twist: They’re destined to decay. The floats will be set loose in Puget Sound to join the pack-ice in Alaska — just like real floats. Maybe they’ll survive. Maybe they won’t. And the giant tree, after perhaps 10 more years of visiting museums around the world (it’s fresh from the Smithsonian and the Davos World Economic Forum), will be taken out by Grade and his team and “planted” next to the real Middle Fork Snoqualmie tree. Eventually, it will cover over with moss, degrade with weather, fall over and finally decompose as a nurse log.
The original tree lives on private property, and its owners are committed to opening up the space ever so often so we can view “Middle Fork” through its aging and death. It’s a lovely passage of art from natural inspiration through reclaimed materials and communal effort back into nature.
But it’s more than that.
“Unlike other museum projects, it’s not about preserving the art, it’s about letting it decay,” says Grade, whose larger sculptures include oyster-clad circles of wood eaten by birds in the desert and a delicate wooden web attacked daily by wild boars in a French forest. “If we’re not going to look at our mortality and how things fall apart, we’re missing a big part of life.”
And while none of us likes to think about aging, decay and death, “Middle Fork” can guide us like a beacon toward that dark night as it returns to the forest.
“It may actually be more beautiful when that happens,” says Grade.
Where: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays ongoing.
Cost: Seeing the tree in the foyer is free. Admission to galleries is $24.95 adults, $22.95 seniors and military, $14.95 students and teens, free ages 12 and younger and first Thursdays.
Information: 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org.
John Grade: North
Where: Davidson Galleries, 313 Occidental Ave., Seattle.
When: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through March 25.
Information: 206-624-7684, davidsongalleries.com.