A major Smithsonian renovation in Washington, D.C, opens with local sculptor John Grade’s massive hemlock trunk — made with thousands of tiny blocks of cedar — alongside a reconstruction of Chesapeake Bay by Vietnam memorial designer Maya Lin.
Editor’s note: Over the weekend, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery reopened in Washington, D.C. Seattle sculptor John Grade was one of nine American artists chosen for the inaugural exhibition. Peter Rinearson, a former reporter for The Seattle Times — who owns work by Grade — was there for a celebratory gala.
WASHINGTON — Maya Lin, whose evocative, black Vietnam Veterans Memorial stood less than a mile away, turned toward an improbable object suspended above and behind her. It looked like a giant hemlock trunk, but was fashioned from hundreds of thousands of thumb-sized blocks of aromatic cedar.
“I love this piece,” Lin said. “My jaw dropped open when I first saw it … I’d never seen anything like this, and it was just so stunningly beautiful.”
The 85-foot-long tree sculpture, titled “Middle Fork,” is the work of Seattle artist John Grade, who produced it in a South Lake Union storefront with the help of hundreds of volunteers and his growing staff of paid artisans.
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“We’ve all looked at trees in our environment,” said Grade (who pronounces his name “Gra-day”). “But by orienting this horizontally and giving people a kind of exploded view, with sections very slightly separated, we see interiors in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t.”
Over the weekend, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, which sits kitty-corner to the White House, reopened after more than two years of extensive renovations. Built in the mid-1800s, the Renwick was inspired by the Louvre in Paris and was the first building in the United States conceived as an art museum — though it was quickly pressed into service by the Union Army as a weapons depot during the Civil War, and has had many lives since then.
For the Renwick’s grand reopening, curator Nicholas Bell commissioned nine American artists to each fill a room with a new work intended to create a sense of wonder — and “Wonder” is the title of the inaugural show.
Grade’s contribution was “Middle Fork,” which began as a plaster cast of a living hemlock near the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River east of Seattle. “I had this wonderful excuse to spend two weeks casting the tree, hanging up there (from the branches),” Grade said.
Lin, who designed the Vietnam memorial when she was a college student, contributed “Folding the Chesapeake,” which recreates the form of Chesapeake Bay with thousands of large, blue-green marbles that she glued to the walls and floor of a gallery adjacent to Grade’s.
“Both of us were dealing with nature and rethinking what nature is,” Lin said.
Bell, the Renwick curator, said he’d love to give Grade a chance to take over the whole building. But one challenge, he said, is that so much of Grade’s work is designed to deteriorate rather than persist. The tree sculpture, for example, eventually will be placed back at the base of the tree from which it was cast, left to moss over and rot away. Grade plans to document the process with photos and videos.
Grade also makes works on paper and sculpture that are not meant to perish, and said he may save portions of “Middle Fork.” His many commissions, not all of which are built to disappear, include the towering sculpture “Wawona” at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry.
But much of Grade’s art has been designed to go back to nature. Once, for example, he suspended a huge, beautiful white ring of compressed bird seed in a forest. The piece was soon eaten.
Bell said he admires the purity of Grade’s vision. “It’s poetically beautiful” to have “Middle Fork” return to nature, Bell said. “But part of me just wants to have it here forever. I mean, we’ve got some storage space at the Smithsonian. Can’t we just find room for this tree and bring it out every five years or something?”
Tim Detweiler, director of Seattle’s MadArt, was at a pair of galas at the Renwick last week. He said a few visitors were vocally angry that the work was destined for the forest floor. But Detweiler said he finds the deliberate impermanence poignant.
“I’ve worked in museums for many years,” he said. “And we make this promise of keeping things forever and we all know that that’s not true. Everything will disappear eventually.”
“Middle Fork” took shape at MadArt’s storefront beginning in 2014. “The main focus of MadArt is to have people see the process of building the piece,” Detweiler said.
Grade took it a step further. When “Middle Fork” was under construction, a small sign on the window invited passers-by to come in — hundreds accepted an offer to volunteer. Grade said many of them were managers, who took joy in doing something tactile, as they tried to fit pieces of wood together to follow the contour of the mold of the tree.
At the final gala last week, visitors pressed into the gallery with “Middle Fork,” navigating around its branches. As Grade entered the room, a man recognized him and asked, “Is this yours?”
“Not for long,” Grade replied. “I’m about to return it to the ground.”