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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Following Stair back to her studio in Harlem, where the pieces dry, and are fitted and numbered.
Now to add some color …….
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.
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.
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.
The bright airy studio, with its large windows, is organized with tables filled with supplies for each part of this work-in-progress.
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.
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.
Below, a wider view of the artist, as she checks the site of her next installation, Roots on Fire, which will be on view August 13, 2019.
Susan Stair: Roots on Fire on view in Harlem Art Park beginning August 13, 2019, along with related programming. 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.
While you’re there, walk around the corner to the Hunter East Harlem Gallery to view, What is Here is Open: Selections from the Treasurers in the Trash Collection, on view to September 14, 2019. The gallery is located on 119th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.