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Watch This Artist Turn an Old Tree into a Mesmerizing Sculpture

John Grade's "Middle Fork" will be exhibited at the Renwick Gallery in November.

Watch This Artist Turn an Old Tree into a Mesmerizing Sculpture
A peek inside John Grade's "Middle Fork" sculpture. Photo courtesy of the artist.

John Grade’s “Middle Fork” was created in Washington state, but the finished sculpture will be exhibited in DC’s Renwick Gallery when the historic space reopens on November 13. A sculptor of dynamic, large-scale objects that typically involve community involvement, Grade started working on the piece in April of last year. The first step: A group of eight spent about two weeks working on the ambitious (and seemingly grueling) task of casting a living, 140-year-old hemlock tree near the Snoqualmie River. Thanks to the help of tree-climbing rigs, they hung nearly 90 feet in the air and painstakingly applied layer after layer of foil and plaster cast.

Next, the artist invited the public into a Seattle studio to help cover the cast with quarter-inch cedar blocks. The result is a hollow, 40-foot-long sculpture built out of hundreds of thousands of tiny blocks–a mesmerizing piece that mimics the tree’s lower half and offers viewers a unique look inside a massive trunk form. Following its exhibition tour, Grade will place the biodegradable sculpture on the ground near the original hemlock in Washington state, where it’ll disintegrate into the earth. You can hear more about how the stunning piece was made–and will ultimately be destroyed–in the video below.

“Middle Fork” is part of the Renwick’s opening show, WONDER, an immersive exhibition featuring nine contemporary artists, including Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Wonder will run through July 10.

Quarter-inch cedar blocks were placed onto the cast by volunteers in Seattle. Photo by Amos Morgen, courtesy of CYNTHIA-REEVES.
The sculpture’s surface was evened out with a sanding machine, bringing together each individual contribution into a single whole. Photo by Amos Morgen, courtesy of CYNTHIA-REEVES.
After exhibiting in DC and a few other museums, the sculpture will be placed back in the forest to disintegrate on the ground. Photo courtesy CYNTHIA-REEVES.
The 40-foot sculpture represents the lower half of a 140-year-old hemlock tree. Photo courtesy CYNTHIA-REEVES.