Project Name Trees of Aspen
Project Location Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Snowmass Village, Colorado Project Category Communications
Project Summary: Over the last thirty years, the American West has seen a continual increase in severe drought and forest fires, reminding us all; as a part of any community, we are affected by climate change. A unique collaboration between an environmental artist and participating landscape architects created “Trees of Aspen,” a sculpture that explores the combination and relationship of natural resource consumptive patterns, a Mountain Pine Beetle kill epidemic, global climate change and shifting ecological zones. A monument in remembrance of natural disasters, Trees was made from a collection of burnt pine and aspen trees from a high altitude forest fire near New Castle, Colorado. The fire started in the midst of a severe drought plaguing western Colorado. Sealed by wax into the base of the trees are seeds collected at the site of the fire, anticipating the rebirth of a future forest within a living sculpture. Originally constructed as a temporary installation on the grounds of Anderson Ranch Art Center, the SMART Museum of Art at the University Chicago received the Trees of Aspen as part of their permanent collection.
Purpose of Project: Trees of Aspen, a collection of burnt pine and aspen trees from a high altitude forest fire near New Castle, Colorado, is a sculptural monument in remembrance of natural disasters. The purpose of the piece was to create a temporal marker of forest devastation created by climate change, forest fires and the impact of the pine-bark beetle kill epidemic that is consuming the western slope of Colorado. The Mountain Pine Beetle kill epidemic has consumed over 2 million acres of land in Colorado over the last 15 years, and has been accelerated due to the stress that the Pine forest is experiencing because of severe drought and global warming. The United States Forest Service states that this epidemic is ten times as impactful as previous outbreaks.
The sculpture is meant to provoke that this disaster is part of a cyclical process, as forest fires both regenerate and devastate. The sculpture evokes this spirit of life and death by integrating elements from the nearby fire into the context of a community. Each piece of the burnt forest was suspended on a thin piece of rebar, approximately 6” in the air, allowing the tree trunks to float over the ground and move whimsically by wind patterns, as if they were spirits from the devastated ecosystem.
Sealed by wax into the base of the Trees of Aspen, are seeds of a regenerative forest, collected at the site of the forest fire, anticipating the rebirth of a future forest within a living sculpture. Just as the burnt trees originally came from seeds, from death brings new life.
From a community perspective, it is difficult to understand the forest health that is created by such a devastating natural disaster. However, the sculpture continues to help raise awareness to the complete circle of life that the forest depends on for its survival, as well as creating an intervention that reveals the use and abuse of our natural resources, in this case being the lack of water. The temporary installation was created at the edge of a golf course, adjacent to a fairway and green. Even during the installation, numerous golfers stopped to view the sculpture, asking questions, and thus, raising awareness.
Role of Landscape Architect vs. The Role of Other Participants: The collaboration between environmental artist and landscape architect reconfirmed the necessity of immersing oneself in nature and drawing from nature in completing works about nature. The process of walking through the forest; sketching; listening; watching; and discovering, helps to identify the unique elements of the sculpture. The team truly engaged all human senses during reconnaissance, conceptual design and installation. They spent approximately eight hours exploring the burnt forest, analyzing the devastation, natural patterns of growth, shadow, erosion, wind and burn, as well as the charred remains and the regeneration of the new forest emerging from the forest floor. Each individual piece that would become collectively Trees of Aspen was evaluated and selected based on compositional form, texture, color, height, and mass. This process, led by the team, concluded by loading the burnt skeletons of the forest on a truck and delivered to the installation site, approximately 50 miles away.
This experience revealed the distinction between the conventional landscape architecture process and an artistic process. In this process, it was necessary to seek the unknown or mystery of an environment. Spending time among the forest fire; taking in what may not be immediately comprehended; wandering, absorbing, and listening without preconception; is distinctly different than that of a conventional landscape architecture analysis process. The conventional landscape architecture process would be organized in subject matter such as circulation, wind, vegetation type, views, and built form. Placing the analysis process into such rigid categories, does not allow for one’s natural instincts to holistically embrace the natural environment around them.
Collectively, the team took the blackened and burned remnant trees from the forest fire, and resurrected it as an installation that commented on global warming. Strategically installed adjacent to a golf course, the piece made an almost surreal juxtaposition between leisure activity and real life eco-catastrophe. The installation process started by each individual tree truck being placed on the ground and further analyzed for its composition, color, form, texture, height and mass. Special consideration was given to the viewing orientation from both Anderson Ranch as well as the golf course. The position of the sun influenced the final placement of the piece, as a design element was to allow for long shadow patterns from the Trees to extend across the turf landscape at sunrise and sunset. The piece was purposely placed in an open landscape to allow for the dominant blue sky and sculptural clouds of the Colorado sky to be in contrast to the stark black trunks. The landscape architect played a significant role in and influenced each one of these decision making points. It truly was a seamless effort between environmental artist and landscape architect.
Special Factors: As landscape architects, collaborating with environmental artists, the typical site inventory and analysis process was not appropriate, in favor of more open ended, explorative approach. This allowed the team to use their senses to reveal the unknown or the poetics of the burnt forest. Viewing growth patterns of the Pines climbing a mountainside, listening to the burnt trees rattle together when the wind would blow, seeing contrast of the new growth forest on the forest floor against the trees that once lived, or smelling and tasting the ash in the air, are examples of this new poetic analysis.
A hands on approach to the installation or construction process, was truly driven by site-specific and contextual factors. Each piece was placed, the analyzed for its compositional quality, and in many cases resituated among the burnt trees that were already installed. Constantly sketching ideas or relocating each piece, allowed for the team to discover the appropriate collective compositional form, thus abstracting the growth pattern of the Pines climbing a mountainside. This field operation approach engaged many creative minds and a collaborative approach, resulted in a living piece that is now a permanent collection at a major museum.
Significance: Nature is a life-giving force that we often deny because it defies the production/consumption model. Nature procreates effortlessly and can regenerate and thrive, given the chance. In developing a environmental-specific art rooted in the actual experience in a given place and time – with nature as the essential material and ingredient of the process – the piece moves from considering the Colorado mountain landscape as resort and tourism-based real estate, to considering it part of an active and living site for eternity. Land art is an evolving art form. Increasingly ephemeral, it attracts a truly global and intercultural participation.
Over the last thirty years, the American West has seen a continual increase in drought and forest fires. These disasters remind us all, for as a part of any community, we are affected by climate change. In collaboration with Anderson Ranch Art Center, a team of landscape architects and environmental artists created Trees of Aspen, a sculpture that explores geo-specific, bioregional and human cultural issues of global climate change and shifting ecological zones. As a site specific sculpture, the Trees of Aspen remind us that the increase in Colorado forest fires and pine bark beetle epidemic is influenced by global warming. The increases of these fires are an example of nature’s response to this phenomenon. The piece speaks to finding harmony with humanity and ecology.
The temporary installation stood for three days before being taken down and stored. In the summer of 2009, the SMART Museum of Art at the University Chicago received the Trees of Aspen as part of their permanent collection.
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