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Massive Nature-Inspired Sculptures Explore Growth and Decay

Seattle sculptor John Grade is a land explorer.
John Grade, Canopy Tower (detail), 2015. Ipe wood, rope, steel, and wire. 15 feet 9 inches high, 15 feet diameter. Installation view, The Contemporary Austin – Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, Austin, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Cynthia Reeves. Photograph by Brian Fitzsimmons

In a forested area off the well-traveled paths of The Contemporary Austin’s sculpture park at Laguna Gloria, John Grade’s Canopy Tower offers a solitary experience: The 16-foot-tall sculpture hangs high enough off the ground for one person to stand inside. It could be funneling messages from the trees down to the viewers, or providing us with a giant megaphone to dispatch our ideas into the sky—either way, the structure seems to want to act as a channel between humans and nature. The installation is anchored to three trees; as the wind pushes against them, the upper portion of the tower shifts, outlining the scene above in varying circular and oval frames.


The interior of the sculpture framing the view of the canopy above. Courtesy the artist

“I was most interested in form interacting with unpredictable forces,” the Seattle-based sculptor tells The Creators Project. “The sound of the individual plates with their steel inserts was an important choice. I think it amplifies the more subtle forces of the wind—you can track wavelike patterns of sound across the interior surface of the sculpture under the right conditions.” Hollow, fluted forms, which extend out from each wooden panel, also create varying patterns of light inside. Inspired by the shape of coccolithophore—a type of phytoplankton that have calcium carbonate scales—the motif was previously introduced by Grade in his Wawona sculpture, which was commissioned in 2011 by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

Threading rope through smaller (lower) panels of Canopy Tower. Courtesy the artist

As Canopy Tower ages, the trees will grow over the ends of the bolts that fasten the steel arcs at top to the trunks. Meanwhile, Wawona—an 11,000 pound sculpture that punctures the museum building, protruding above and below it—will wear away in sections: The main body, inside, will remain protected and intact, while the portions exposed to the elements are left to erode.

Host, 2008, Arizona. Courtesy the artist

Those changes—adaptation, degeneration—are welcomed by the artist, and are a recurring theme in his work. Host, a sculpture made of ground seeds and rice pulp, set in an Aspen grove near the Grand Canyon in 2008, was designed to be eaten by birds. A three-month installation in 2011 in Valenciennes, France—part of a larger project entitled La Chasse (“The Hunt” in French)—featured a wooden net that was repeatedly broken by the region’s wild boar. “A repetition of break-repair-break-repair became a kind of conversation made visual through overlapping splices and braces over time,” explains Grade on his website.


View of Middle Fork at Mad Art Studio, when the sculpture was 45 feet long

If his large-scale works aren’t evidence enough of his ambitious nature, Grade's schedule certainly proves the point: The artist has over 16 large projects in different stages of development, which are increasingly focusing on “landforms in the natural world, including trees, caves, geology—especially those in the Arctic,” the artist tells us. One traveling sculpture, Middle Fork, is a progressive recreation of a living tree a bit further south, in Washington state; it grows as it reaches every exhibition venue. By the time it lands at the Seattle Art Museum in February 2017, for a five-year stay, it will be 105 feet long, with branches spanning 30 feet. Once the entire, 140-foot-tall tree is completed, the piece will be laid to rest next to its living counterpart, and left to disintegrate on the forest floor.

View of La Chasse in winter

View of Elephant Bed disintegrating in the sea in Brighton, UK

View from inside Wawona: the sculpture punctures through the ceiling of the Seattle museum

View of John Grade’s studio on October 25, 2016. “As you can see we are continuing to work on the Middle Fork project,” the artist says. “Over 1000 people have contributed to the making of the sculpture beyond my team of 15 assistants.”

To learn more about John Grade, visit his website, which features excellent images and details of the process behind each of his projects. To learn more about The Contemporary Austin, click here.


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