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80-foot-tall sequoia sculpture at OSU to evoke changing climate threat against old-growth forests

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By Molly Rosbach, [email protected]

Source: Peter Betjemann, [email protected]; Ann Van Zee, [email protected]

CORVALLIS, Ore. — An 80-foot illuminated art sculpture is currently being installed at Oregon State University’s Corvallis campus, where it will be suspended in midair for the next 14 months among three 80-year-old sequoia trees.

Named “Emeritus,” the sculpture was created by internationally renowned artist John Grade and is constructed from more than 100,000 pieces of resin and Alaskan yellow cedar that will take the form of a ghostly fourth sequoia. From below, visitors will be able to look up through its hollow trunk. At night, the piece will be illuminated, drawing spectators into the sequoia grove on the north side of OSU’s Memorial Union Quad.

The sculpture is being fully assembled for the first time on OSU’s campus this week, with Grade guiding teams of volunteers who are linking the pieces together with wire and fishing line. Grade, members of his studio, OSU research associate Yung-Hsiang (Sky) Lan and OSU artist-in-residence Leah Wilson are climbing the living sequoias to suspend the sculpture from cushioned straps so the trees are not harmed.

Parts of the sculpture are superficially burnt, a nod to the thick, resilient bark of sequoias that helps them survive wildfire — but not necessarily withstand the sustained, extreme wildfires that are becoming more common with climate change.

“These trees are adapted and resilient, but at the same time they are threatened. The ghostly element of the sculpture captures that threat, even as the burning captures that adaptation,” said Peter Betjemann, Patricia Valian Reser director of OSU’s Arts and Education Complex, which is co-presenting the Grade sculpture and is set to officially open on campus in 2024. “That play of presence and absence, of robustness and vulnerability — those are common themes in Grade’s work.”

Once it’s in place, forestry researchers will use the sculpture as a jumping off point for data collection about the environment. They will place equipment in the living sequoias to do bioacoustic monitoring of avian communities to detect which bird species visit the grove; conduct automated dendrometer measurement to track the sequoias’ growth patterns over the changing seasons; and perform eDNA sequencing on rainwater that passes through the tree canopy to measure biodiversity.

“This is an opportunity to show how integrated and interconnected the work of the College of Forestry is with everything around us,” said Tom DeLuca, dean of the college. “As this installation moves, shifts and changes daily with the weather, it follows the rhythm of nature, making each day and each experience with the installation unique.”

Grade’s sculptures are often linked to forest conditions, and his works seem to meld with their natural environment, making him a perfect fit for OSU and its strengths in forestry research, Betjemann said.

“The sequoia grove itself is spatially wonderful, just the way you have this void in there because all the branches are working away toward the light; I could instantly see this ephemeral cloud in there,” Grade said of his initial visit. “So many people move through that central quad; the sculpture’s going to be subtle, where if you don’t know about it, you can happen upon it and have this wonderful sense of discovery.”

The project is co-presented by OSU’s Arts and Education Complex, College of Liberal Arts and College of Forestry, funded by OSU Foundation endowments from Patricia Valian Reser, Richard and Gretchen Evans and Jim and Peggy Wiggett.

The sculpture will be in place for 14 months, through December 2023, subject to the elements and open for viewing by anyone who passes through the grove.

“What I love about public art is that anyone can walk up to it without having to buy a ticket, without barriers for access,” Betjemann said. “One of the big commitments of the Arts and Education Complex is that art is not just decorative; art makes you think.”

The installation coincides with OSU’s second university-wide fundraising and engagement campaign. After the official unveiling during an event to launch the campaign on Oct. 14, there will be an “Artist’s Opening, Discussion and Reception” on campus on Friday, Oct. 28, when Grade will return and hold a panel discussion with art commentators, Leah Wilson and OSU forestry faculty.

At the end of its 14-month stay in Corvallis, the sculpture will be disassembled and reconfigured into a new artwork in a spruce forest outside Anchorage, Alaska.

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