Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Titanic of Trees

Cole Nesmith and a small group of dedicated artists have been working on an interactive sculpture called "Tree of Light." The tree's inner structure is made of light weight aluminum welded together. Cole and Josh Owen had screwed hundreds of wooden boards, from discarded pallets onto the aluminum frame. The resulting tree must stand at least 20 feet high and must weigh several tons. It was a marvel of engineering. When I first sketched it, I referred to it as the Titanic of Trees referring to the shear size of the sculpture. Cole laughed. The tree's unveiling was scheduled for February 2nd in Seaside Plaza on the corner of Church Street and Orange Avenue downtown.

On the evening before the unveiling, Cole and Josh worked all night long to get the tree built. A short interview done at 3:3oam that night showed the Tree of Light nearing completion. On the morning of the unveiling however, I got a Facebook message from Cole on my wall, "Unfortunately, due to damage to the structure this morning, the opening has been postponed." I wondered what happened. Had a car hit it? Did the whole trunk just topple? I decided to drive past Cole's place to see if they were doing work on the tree in his yard and then I drove downtown to Seaside Plaza to see if the structure was being fixed there. The only hint that the tree may have once been there were some orange cones and a small strip of electrical wire. The Tree of Light had vanished.

The next evening I went to an Orlando Philharmonic concert and Cole was there as well. He informed me that the owners of the plaza had called him the day before the tree was to be set up to express concerns they had about letting him place the art in the plaza. Though they had doubts, fearing litigation, the tree was erected anyway. The tree was near completion and the electrical wiring was being installed. Chris Clatterbuck was on a ladder working on the wiring. He shifted his weight and leaned on a branch. The welds gave way and the the heavy branch of aluminum and wood crashed loudly to the ground. No one was hurt. The owners of the Plaza now had their worst fears justified, so it is unlikely the tree will be set up there. They probably imagined someone gently pulling a chord to turn on a light bulb and then being crushed by a falling branch. Now that is interactive art!

Cole lamented the fact that he had contracted out the welding work for an exorbitant fee, and it was the welds that gave way. He said, "It was a punch in the gut when we lost the branch that morning. My greatest concern is that we'd lose the momentum we had gained. But, in reality, the pictures and video we got are actually generating more excitement than before. I have an architect working on a 3D rendering of the Tree right now. After that, we'll be handing it off to a structural engineer to approve the changes and make sure we don't run into this again. Then back to the metal shop to make the changes. My hope is that we'll have it up before the end of the month."

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