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Installation view of John Grade: Middle Fork at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Benjamin Benschneider

One Saturday morning in January, I sat at a worktable surrounded by piles of tiny wood pieces and paper cups half-filled with glue. I’d been given a simple set of instructions to arrange and adhere certain groupings of wood into ring-shaped structures, but otherwise, I was left to my own devices. This made me nervous. I’m not a designer, an artist, or a fabricator. And yet, I was in the studio of the internationally exhibited artist John Grade, putting together parts of a tree sculpture that would be shown at the Seattle Art Museum a few months later.

I was one of hundreds of volunteers Grade enlisted to assemble Middle Fork, the massive installation that stretches across the museum’s lobby. The blocks of salvaged old-growth cedar I glued in the artist’s studio were only small handfuls of the nearly one million pieces that comprise the tree-shaped shell suspended within the cavernous space at SAM. Beginning in 2014 as a 40-foot piece at the MadArt Studio in South Lake Union, Middle Fork has since traveled to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The sculpture has grown to fill its space within each exhibition. The 105-foot version at SAM is the largest yet, though the artist hopes it will eventually reach 140 feet, the height of its model: a 140-year-old western hemlock he found near the middle fork of Washington’s Snoqualmie River.

Photo by Natali Wiseman

When discussing the genesis of his work in a video made by the University of Wyoming Art Museum, Grade points to his impetus to understand the world kinesthetically. The inspiration to create Middle Fork came during a walk through the forest, when he encountered a large nurse log and envisioned his body moving through its interior. His desire to explore a physical experience of closeness comes up again in SAM’s video about the work, as the artist describes the way he and several arborists covered the original hemlock in foil and then cast it in plaster to create the mold for Middle Fork’s final wood form. After spending nearly two weeks working, often physically suspended between the evergreen’s branches, Grade talks about experiencing a sense of “intimacy” with the tree. The language he uses to describe the distinctive features he encountered—“limbs” that turn towards the sunlight and “wounds” in the bark’s surface—makes it sound like he spent those weeks trying to better understand another human rather than a conifer.

Meanwhile, my own humanness marked my experience working on Middle Fork. As I assembled my pieces with several other volunteers, I only realized the depths of my immersion in the tree-making process when I had to stop to check which wood wedges on the table were mine; this usually happened as I was on the brink of inadvertently stealing from someone else’s stack. Towards the end of my shift, I was horrified to find a cedar block from a group I’d set to dry had strayed from its section and become lost among dozens of others, buried beyond any hope of recognition and repair. I didn’t know yet that the artist and his studio would sand down the edges after the gluing was complete, creating a sheen of uniformity that would likely erase signs of human error.

Middle Fork, Detail, 2016, John Grade, American, b. 1970, wood, 30 x 28 x 105 ft., Collection of the artist.

When I later asked the artist about the importance of the volunteer contributions to his greater vision for the sculpture, he surprised me by saying he was eager to have volunteers even more involved in future projects, possibly even to the point that his name and theirs would be affiliated with the work in equal measure. Grade explained, “Even before I started bringing other people to help me with the work, I found that I was making things well but that an element of chance was missing. When you bring in other people, you really let go.”

When I experienced Middle Fork in SAM’s Brotman Forum a few months after, I noticed the less predictable elements embedded in the sculpture—the trunk’s rippling surface, the branches’ meandering structures. The familiar pieces came together to form an uncannily true-to-life tree form, sprawling and reaching wildly as if its centuries-old wood were still alive, stretching towards the sun. Any mistakes were imperceptible in the “skin” of the tree, as Grade has called it. Although I momentarily tried to find my misshapen branch, the distance between Middle Fork and its viewers in the lobby is vast—a strange realization for someone used to feeling a sense of closeness with art in museums. In this case, Middle Fork appeared much more stunning from afar but out of reach, as if it were a person I’d once known and was now seeing in a movie. It will eventually return to ground level, not in the museum but back in the Cascades at the foot of the original tree. Grade plans to bring the sculpture there to decompose—the ultimate exercise in allowing nature to reclaim its offspring.