I was awarded this public art project right before the COVID pandemic (late 2019) and it took three years to complete. It required a lot of patience and pivoting from the original concept. Unironically, it was a textbook example of the importance of being flexible like a reed instead of rigid like an oak.
Revitalizing a City Through Art
In the fall of 2019, as part of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, the City of Cleveland was completing a new park plaza in the Glenville neighborhood and sought public art for the space. This project mimicked similar undertakings across other Rust Belt cities, which aim to use art to revitalize and inject vigor into neighborhoods. The end result of this project would be the Tree of Hope & Joy discussed in this article.
The impact of public art on communities has proven positives that encourage citizen cohesion and general well-being. Below is an excerpt from Collaborative art: A transformational force within communities:
Unlike ‘high art’ that is exhibited inside a museum or on the walls of an art gallery, everyday aesthetics—community-based murals and sculptures—form the streetscape of daily life in a locality. These public artworks, often displayed on the exterior of a school, community center, or neighborhood business, are accessible to everyone in a community and can be experienced without the barriers of cost and class.
Cleveland has joined neighboring cities like Columbus and Pittsburgh in embracing public art’s ability to raise the profile of a metro area. By doing so, it’s not only worked to beautify the city but also to foster greater inclusiveness by granting opportunities to a wide range of community artists.
The Glenville Tree of Hope & Joy
Cleveland published a call to artists with close ties to the Glenville area through the city’s Public Art Program. With assistance from fellow artist Rico Brown, I’d previously completed an 8-foot x 28-foot public mural honoring the late Kathryn R. Tyler. Since this project was also located in Glenville, resident artist, and activist Gwen Garth graciously recommended me to the program’s administrators.
I’ve had the idea brewing to place cast metal trees nationwide across Ohio and other cities, bearing leaves with affirming messages for over a decade. This new Glenville project seemed like the perfect opportunity. For this first tree, community members would simply be asked, “What word or phrase inspires hope or joy for you?” I presented the concept to Cleveland and LAND Studio board members, and it was ultimately selected out of a number of competing applications.
Public Art is a Team Effort
It’s rarely the case that a public art project is a single-party undertaking. It requires cooperation from multiple stakeholders, and depending on the size of the artwork, more than one creative will be involved in its execution. For example, city council members must approve budgets, and a city planning committee may be required to approve the final design. Once a project is greenlighted, an artist, fabricator, and installer will be responsible for getting the artwork completed and set into its destined home.
Since the Glenville Tree of Hope & Joy would be my first venture into large-scale metal casting, I reached out to David Deming, a highly accomplished sculptor recognized nationally for his large-scale cast metal work. David graciously agreed to take on a mentoring role and to even allow me access to his studio space to get the artwork finished. Even though the project ultimately took a completely different turn from being a cast metal project, I appreciate that he was willing and ready to help.
Having had the opportunity to work on several public art projects for Cleveland, what I’ve valued with each, is that the city has always required direct feedback and participation from city residents as part of the concept development process. This requirement ensures that the final artwork truly reflects the community’s spirit and resonates with those that will live with the art, hopefully for generations to come.
This is where the expertise of Sankofa Fine Art Plus played a pivotal role. As a champion for public art, Sankofa and its team of artists/administrators believe in the power of African American art to revitalize and unify neighborhoods. With an impressive collection of public art projects under their banner, they are well-versed in community engagement and generating interest in art initiatives. With their help, I collected over 130 impactful messages from Glenville residents to be inscribed on the tree’s leaves.
I originally thought that my role in this project would be as designer, project manager, and partial fabricator—I planned to sculpt the full-scale model myself from clay for molding and casting. As time progressed, it became apparent that budget restraints would require shifting to a more cost-effective material than cast metal. Moving to a combination of a polyfoam material coated in weather-resistant resin would allow me to retain the organic form of the tree but at a fraction of the cost of having it cast in metal.
Finding a fabricator who could render the tree using these materials locally and within budget proved challenging, so I widened my search nationally. This eventually rewarded me with an impressive portfolio of outdoor artwork completed by WhiteClouds an on-demand fabricator based in Utah.
Rendering the tree would require the use of 3D digital files. This is where I tapped the expertise of master 3D sculptor and former Cleveland Institute of Art instructor Robert AK Brown to create a finished 3D sculpt of the tree for CNC milling. With all pieces of this project in place, everything was set to move forward with production.
As we all know, the pandemic impacted every fiber of what we consider to be normal—from how we work together and socialize to how we show affection. Many went months or a year or more without having the opportunity to hug loved ones; others, unfortunately, lost contact with family and friends permanently.
The value of the Tree of Hope & Joy took on a new dimension through COVID. Instead of being a relatively simple linear process, finishing it became a kind of act of defiance to get the tree through each stage of completion in spite of problems caused by the pandemic. Even the collective messages that the tree carries took on a new aspect; these bits of metal are time capsules describing what brought people comfort and hope through the heart of a historic worldwide crisis.
With social distancing in effect, community outreach had to be conducted differently and in a far more stringent fashion to collect messages for the leaves. Again, credit to Sankofa for being able to accomplish this and to community members who did not let the trauma of the situation deter them.
Probably most critical of all, supply chain disruptions and spikes in material costs meant that even using resin and polyfoam was no longer feasible. The organic style design of the tree that we had already invested in would have to be completely re-imagined—back to the drawing board.
The Tree of Hope & Joy 2.0
While keeping material cost and the longevity of the sculpture top-of mind was critical, it was also important to me that the new design display the same care for aesthetics as the original concept—I didn’t want to short-change the community. With the new design, I had to find a balance between keeping the tree simple and easy to assemble while still having some semblance of the organic that it originally featured.
Though the tree is designed from two-dimensional stainless steel sheets, I relied on curl forms for the tree’s branches to inject an organic feel, while the leaf design remained essentially the same. However, as stainless steel silver pieces, the leaves would take on new life, glittering in the sun and making soft music as the wind played with them. WhiteClouds was extremely helpful in keeping me informed about what could and couldn’t be done with the materials as I worked on the new design.
Production of the new tree concept, while cheaper than the original, still required more budget due to the steep global rise in material costs. This meant digging into personal finances to extend the budget upfront while waiting on funds from the city to arrive. Thankfully, through advocacy by Tarra Petras from the Cleveland City Planning Commission, support by artist Gwen Garth and Vince Reddy from LAND Studio, and the work of others, additional funds were found to bring the tree to completion.
The Glenville Tree of Hope & Joy was finally completed at the end of 2022 and was placed in its permanent home by the installation team from New Vista Enterprises in January of 2023.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to bringing this project over the finish line, and to all those who cheered the project on from start to finish. You can come visit this little tree that stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in Glenville, Ohio, at the intersection of East 105th and Ashbury Avenue 44106.