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 Photo of “Union” by David Rosen

In late August 2023, renowned Seattle-based environmental sculptor John Grade installed his latest work outdoors at the Washington Park Arboretum. Entitled “Union,” it is comprised of 6300 individual cast-resin parts suspended from two large nets spanning 100 feet between eight trees—mostly western red cedars—at a trail junction southwest of the Magnolia Collection.

As Grade explains on his website, “The sculpture was inspired by a fallen western red cedar in Seattle’s Discovery Park. The top of the trunk of the fallen tree was divided into two slender leaders. Broken by the fall, both leaders revealed their concentric growth rings. Focused on the similarities and differences between each of these cross sections, Union is a magnified representation of the cell structure of each of the two leaders.”

Grade’s work draws inspiration from changing ecosystems in the natural world. He collaborates with a studio team to sculpt immersive, large-scale, site-specific installations, often focusing on themes of impermanence, kinetics and chance. Fifteen artisans worked for more than six months to create the Arboretum sculpture.

Union is a dynamic piece, designed to respond to and interact with its environment—shimmering in the sunlight, chiming in the wind, and bending with the rain. The resin forms in the upper net, cast in different shades of blue, are slightly convex and so shed rainwater, while the resin forms in the lower net, cast in different greens, are slightly concave and angled so that they collect and then release rainwater.

Says Grade, “When dry, the two sets of forms merge together, and when wet, the two forms separate slightly, due to the increased water weight collected by the sculpture.”

“This movement of the nets—combined with the sounds and the light filtering through the resin—creates a multi-sensory experience that changes each time you see it,” says Jane Stonecipher, executive director of the Arboretum Foundation, which helped raise the funds for Union.

Sideways view of “Union.” (Photo by Niall Dunne)

 The UW Botanic Gardens is curating the public art piece. Director Christina Owen is excited by the educational opportunities that Union will present. “More than an exhibit,” she says “this is a year-round visitor experience that harmonizes the artistic and educational facets of nature.”

With funds from the Foundation, UW Botanic Gardens is creating a new educational discovery station to help to make the Grade installation accessible to students of all ages.

Over a nearly two-year planning period, Grade worked with the University’s curation staff and arborists to select and prepare the site. They also consulted with local experts to ensure that no birds or other wildlife would be adversely impacted by the sculpture. (Grade has installed similar pieces in forested locations at Kew Gardens, England, and Chaumont Sur Loire, in France, with no recorded injury to wildlife.)

A public celebration of “Union” took place on Sunday, September 24 and featured free tours of the artwork, live music, food trucks and more. Visitors to the Arboretum can enjoy the sculpture for free, from dawn till dusk. A map, with the location of Union marked on it, is available at the Graham Visitors Center. It is hoped that this “long-term temporary installation,” as Grade calls it, will be in place for about five years.

John Grade with (left to right) UW Botanic Gardens’ Christina Owen and Maureen Black and the Arboretum Foundation’s Jane Stonecipher at a “Union” donor event in August 2023. (Photo by Niall Dunne)

In John’s Words

From a conversation with John, hosted by Christina Owen at a “Union” donor event in August 2023.

On how the forms in “Union” are inspired by cells of a cedar tree:

“If you stand directly underneath the piece, hopefully you can pick out the fact that there are growth lines. So you’ll see [rings of] larger cells go to smaller cells and back to large cells. It’s a subtle thing. There’s also a cell structure within each cell.”

On comparing “Union” to similar suspended installations in London, Italy, and France:

“In this piece, I’ve paid a lot more careful attention to pigment. Hopefully, you’ll appreciate the greens and the blues and how they appear in different weather. How on a sunny day, it’s going to do very different things, where the blue forms will disappear against the blue sky, and the greens will do the inverse.”

On how his art can provide an accessible, “sideway view” into larger changes happening to natural systems:

“If a piece like this gets you to pause and think about what’s happening—in this case, the inspiration of two sides of the same tree and how different they are because of the way the climate is impacting them each year, in such different ways. It’s a quiet message, but it might resonate with people [and lead to] a conversation that’s productive rather than polarizing.”

Thanks to Our “Union” Sponsors!

In addition to the Arboretum Foundation, generous financial support for the Grade installation came from Arboretum Foundation Unit 26, Aldarra Foundation, Madison Park Garden Club, Maribeth O’Connor and Chuck Nordhoff, Peter and Shannon van Oppen.

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