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Wheelwright’s ‘Tree Figures’ well rooted in NY park
Perhaps it’s because these towering woodland creatures look like the Ents, the treepeople in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” or like the gods the Druids worshipped. Whatever their subliminal appeal, the tree figures by Dorchester nature sculptor Joseph Wheelwright are demonstrating once again their enduring popularity and mystical allure.
Katonah Museum of Art in Westchester County, NY, announced that its current outdoor exhibit of Wheelwright’s “Tree Figures” will be extended for another year through Spring 2013. The five statues at Katonah, created between 2006 and 2008, are part of 10-piece series on which the master carver has been working for nearly a decade.
The Katonah show features some works displayed during a similarly successful long stay at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass., (2008-2010) along with some newer ones.
Ranging from 16 ½ to 27 feet in height, these forest folk started out as live specimens of hornbeam, yellow birch, cherry or pine, which have been uprooted, turned upside down and remodeled.
Wheelwright grew up in the Pittsfield and Lenox area, roaming the woods with his brother and collecting specimens for their home natural history museum. His use of found materials in his sculpture stemmed originally from the high cost of traditional artist’s supplies and a lifelong desire to bring out the vitality and personality inherent in natural objects.
In a Fruitlands catalogue, essayist Susan Landauer sought to capture the mystique of his works.
“Joseph Wheelwright’s enigmatic sculpture has confounded critics since it first appeared more than thirty years ago in New England galleries, she said. By turns whimsical and disturbing, the work eludes classification. He has always taken the most ordinary of objects and endowed them with a peculiar living presence. Whether his figures are made of boulders, branches, or whole trees, there is a creeping sense that when we turn our backs on them they move.”
In addition to his home in Peabody Square (an area for which Wheelwright created the “Sleeping Moon”) and his workshop in Uphams Corner (where he is managing partner of the Humphrey Street Studios), Wheelwright and wife Susan own 40 acres in East Corinth, Vt., from which many of the trees were harvested.
Though the finished work crackles with a just-yanked-from-the-ground wildness, the long process of uprooting, reassembling and supplementing requires cranes, forklifts, cherry-pickers, ramps and a host of woodworking tools. Achieving the right look to the head, limbs and genitals can involve wood prostheses which are then re-upholstered with bark to look entirely un-meddled with.
The New York Times celebrated the current Katonah show with a Sept. 2011 feature in which Wheelwright expressed his belief in the common ancestry of trees and humans.
“There’s no question that we are descended from the same organism, he sai. You see it all the time: an armpit will form at the bottom of a branch; then it will mound like a shoulder. And many times I’ve seen fingers that seem to grow like a hand, with a spray of three or four, and then something thicker that heads down like a thumb. It’s quite astonishing.”
For a video interview on the show, go to katonahmuseum.org.