In the early 1980’s, artist Joseph Wheelwright was on a nature walk when he spotted a stick with a series of small branches high in the canopy of a maple tree that bore a striking resemblance to a runner. He was struck by the way a static object could create such a powerful sense of motion and energy. After some minor alterations that included removing some bark to highlight the texture of the branches, the Running Stick became the first in what would become a long line of tree sculptures created by Mr. Wheelwright.
Wheelwright’s work with trees has since grown from 12″ stick figures to an impressive collection of towering tree sculptures, some of which are over 30′ tall. When asked what led him to trees as a medium, Wheelwright says “Early in my career it was a question of economics. In the low income years, art supplies were often too expensive so I looked to nature to provide the materials.” He soon discovered that he was inspired by the various colors, textures and patterns that he encountered. A talented stone sculptor as well, Wheelwright found that, in comparison, “Trees were very active, jumpy, energetic, human-like forms.” It was his discovery of this connection between humans and trees that allowed Wheelwright to spot branches, limbs or curves that resembled some part of the human anatomy. “It’s amazing how often human features show up in a tree” Wheelwright says. “There’s no question that we’re related.”
After Wheelwright discovers a tree that sparks an idea, the process of turning that tree into a larger-than-life work of art begins. Early in his work with trees, Wheelwright used 3 pine trees to form a tripod which allowed him to work on trees up to 20′ high. He has since graduated to a custom built, forty foot bridge crane kept on his property in Vermont. Working from the bucket of his crane, Wheelwright has easy access to the exposed root structure of the inverted tree. From these roots, he’s able to uncover and shape the upper body, arms and shoulders of his tree figures. over the years Wheelwright has found that certain trees lend themselves to specific body types. “Spruce trees, for example, tend to have very muscular roots while white birch roots are slender and better suited to more medusa-like figures with multiple arms.” Wheelwright looks for bifurcated trees and after removing a few branches he’s left with, what appears as, two striding legs to support the figure. To form the heads of his figures, Wheelwright sometimes employs a carved block of laminated pine that is then “upholstered” in bark and secured to the sculpture.
The end result is a series of tree figures that have been described as uncanny, whimsical and even eerie. When standing underneath one of these massive “tree people” it’s easy to believe that they might come to life at any second or sneak up on you when your back is turned. Wheelwright says that, like many artists, he never sets out to provoke any particular reaction from those viewing his tree figures, but rather to let people experience and interpret the trees in their own way. Wheelwright is currently working on a 40′ tree figure, his tallest to date, and expects this project to be completed in fall 2011.
Five of Joseph Wheelwright’s trees including the Pine Man (pictured above) are currently on display at the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY. This exhibition will run through May of 2012. For more information, visit www.katonahmuseum.org or call (914) 232-9555.
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