Exploring Roots of Trees and Cultural Roots with Artist Susan Stair: Roots on Fire in the Art Park, East Harlem




Photo credit: AFineLyne

Spending time with artist Susan Stair brings a whole new meaning to the trees that fill our green spaces. As we watched her work to create the clay molds for her current installation, Roots on Fire, Stair took us on a virtual journey underground, exploring how trees constantly send electrical messages through their roots and the mushroom (or mychorrizal network) that compose the Wood Wide Web. Come along on our three-part journey (from the Trees to the Studio to the Installation) as we document the creation of the installation Roots on Fire, on view through August 17, 2020.

Artist Susan Stair August 13 2019

Tending to some finishing touches, above ~ artist, Susan Stair. Below, the artist alongside Connie Lee, President of Marcus Garvey Park Alliance/Director, Public Art Initiative, and organizer of this project.

Connie Lee and Susan Stair



On the heals of Present Histories by artist Kathleen Granados, the decorative fence at Harlem Art Park will once again explore the rich history of the people that make up East Harlem.

Close-up of Roots on Fire

Towering eight-feet tall, with roots that are twenty-five feet wide, the sculpture Roots on Fire is combined with mosaic images of flags from six nations. Above is a close-up, showing flags of many nations in a park that is occupied by a community made up of many nations.

Flag of Puerto Rico


Flag of Italy


Flag of Mexico


From L-R, Jamaica next to Cameroon




Haiti next to clay prints of the Sweet Gum in Marcus Garvey Park, the tree that is lifting a 5-ton rock!

Stair and her team began early on Monday, August 12th, laying out each piece on the ground in East Harlem’s Art Park, fitting them as they will appear on the wall. Below are a few images of her day, beginning with her arrival to a blank canvas that she filled by end of day.

August 12th, Susan Stair assisted by Ken Weisensee,, along with Connie Lee, President of Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, and Director of Public Art Initiative on far right


Ken Weisensee sawing wood with artist, Susan Stair on the other end


Ken Weisensee, Susan Stair and Connie Lee attaching the first piece


Just arrived, and laying out each piece as they will appear on the wall. Pictured, Susan Stair and Ken Weisensee


Ready, set ~ Install!

Let’s take a break and go back to the beginning, to a pictorial timeline of the process starting with pressing clay against the bark to mirror its intricate pattern, images below.

june 12 2019 ~ Artist, Susan Stair working with Ken Weisensee, placing her numbered pattern on the specific part of the tree that will be mirrored onto clay


june 12 2019 ~ The work is lengthy and tedious, capturing every beautiful line

As trees send electrical messages through their roots, the installation highlights its comparative significance with the many languages spoken in the historic surrounding community. Solar lights will run down the trunk of the sculpture and through the roots, breaking above ground in the root extensions, simulating the electrical messages that trees constantly send.

Artist Susan Stair pressing clay and Director of Public Art Initiative, Connie Lee looks on

The sculpture will invite people to learn about the cultural roots of this community. The flags of Italy, Africa, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico will be included. Gold tile will weave through the “Mother” tree in the park. But the installation will also introduce visitors to the concept of a whole other world underground, where pathways connect trees and allow them to communicate.

Pounding and rolling the pattern of the tree bark onto clay

Best said by the artist, “As Roots one Fire acknowledges the people of Spanish Harlem, it also acknowledges that trees are essential to every shared space. Like people, trees live in a community. The London Plane trees in the park communicate with each other and share resources through their root systems that function like the brains of the tree. Recently we have learned that trees of the same species grow at the same rate because they share resources through their roots and the Wood Wide Web, discovered and named by Susanne Simard in 1997. They can become mentors for our survival.” And as the artist proceeded to give an enlightening perspective on the subject, her hands worked quickly ~ pressing clay to the tree bark in various sections.

A true ‘tree whisperer,’ Stair exclaims how much trees love to be touched

With large pieces of clay being pressed again a tree, and finished pieces sitting on numbered flats on the grass, it was not a surprise that neighbors walking through the park were curiously attracted to the artist and her work. It seemed her greatest pleasure to not only explain her process, but to explain the underground life she hopes to bring above ground in her installation.

June 12, 2019: Artist, Susan Stair and President of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance/Director of Public Art Initiative, Connie Lee speak with curious neighbors about the installation and its process, giving them the new Public Art Initiative map, which is available for free at various locations throughout Harlem and East Harlem.

Now viewing the trees in our park through a different lens, Stair shared her favorite reads on the subject which include The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and Lab Girl by Hope Jaren ~ both we hope to read sitting under this very tree on 120th Street in Marcus Garvey Park.

As the clay is carefully removed from the tree, a mirror image of tree bark is shown, close-up.

The two-dimensional installation entitled Roots on Fire by artist, Susan Stair will be situated on the decorative fence at the Harlem Art Park, between two towering London Plane trees ~ representing the trees spreading roots and symbolizing stability. The unfurling flags depicted with mosaic tiles are a call to preserve the cultural heritage of the diverse ethnic groups that came together to live in East Harlem over the past 150 years.

Imprints now complete and laid out in numerical order to be brought to the kiln

The artist leaves us with this ~ “According to Douglas Belkin of the New York Times in his article “US Runs Short of Botanists” on August 15, 2018, all people are suffering from ‘Plant Blindness’. This is the inability to recognize plants and trees as a vibrant contributor and necessity for healthy communities. Both trees and people with different languages have settled East Harlem.”

Take a closer look at the clay imprints taken from the old tree along West 120th Street in Marcus Garvey Park

Following Stair back to her studio in Harlem, where the pieces dry, and are fitted and numbered.

Pieces dried before fitting in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Now to add some color …….

Fitting glass in the colors of national flags

Now for a visit to Stair’s studio where she creates national flags representing the surrounding community, in all their magnificent colors ~ in glass. Above and below, work begins on a large mosaic creating flags of six nations.

Working with all sizes, all shapes, tightly fitting them into place

Piecing glass together is labor-intensive, creating as the artist moves the project along, working with hand-cut tiles set against gorgeous thick panes of glass in deep greens, cranberry and red ~ a variety of blues and white.

Fitting colors of the national flags onto the form of the roots of the installation Roots on Fire

The glass fitting in to the pattern of roots ~ laid out in several pieces on the studio floor, that will be placed together to create roots that will be twenty-five feet wide, and eight feet tall.

A work-in-progress in early July, 2019

The bright airy studio, with its large windows, is organized with tables filled with supplies for each part of this work-in-progress.

Best part of a studio visit is the work area

Patterns now being filled in, the installation is taking shape, as one-by-one, colors of this ethically rich community align next to each other above ground, as roots of our trees do underground.

Fitting pieces together, the installation begins to take shape

Susan, with some assistance, visited the site several times during the week of July 28th, measuring and checking the space against several pieces that will be part of her new installation.

As you can see (below) the current installation in the Art Park, Present Histories, is still on view for another week.

The artist and her assistant visit the site, checking size with part of the installation. Image courtesy of the onlooking Director of Public Art Initiative, Connie Lee. Pictured above, Susan Stair and Ken Weisensee

Below, a wider view of the artist, as she checks the site of her next installation, Roots on Fire, which will be on view from August 13, 2019 through August 17, 2020.

Susan Stair, her husband and assistance checking the site of her upcoming installation. Image courtesy of the onlooking Director of Public Art Initiative, Connie Lee

Susan Stair: Roots on Fire on view in Harlem Art Park beginning August 13, 2019, along with related programming (below). Opening Reception will be held on Sunday, September 29th from 4:00 to 6:00 pm.



Susan Stair: Roots on Fire is made possible in part with funding from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Funding has also been provided by the Public Art Initiative, an ongoing cultural equity initiative of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, sponsored by the Durst Organization and the Harlem Community Development Corporation.


Shop Susan Stair’s #TreeWear in the Etsy Shop


While you’re there, check out Growth, by artist Jorge Luis Rodriguez, which is the first Percent for Art installation.

Harlem Art Park is located on 120th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, next to the historic Harlem Courthouse.