Saturday, October 05, 2013

In the Shadow of the Elm

In the Shadow of the Elm

In Portland's South Park Blocks, between Market & Clay, the outline of a tree appears on the ground, like something the Ent police would draw at a crime scene. This is In the Shadow of the Elm, described as depicting "the shadow of an Elm tree that used to stand at the site. It is made of 169 individually cut pieces of “Sierra White” granite." The city's South Park Blocks page cautiously states "installed in 1984, depicts the shadow of a tree that may have once existed within the grid of trees in the block". A press release from Marylhurst University (where the sculptor taught for many years) gets a bit melodramatic: "Paul Sutinen's public art piece "In the Shadow of the Elm" (in the Park Blocks between the Art Museum and PSU) is one of the treasures of Portland. Simultaneously subtle and magnificent, it is a stone shadow of a great elm tree that is no longer there."

In the Shadow of the Elm

This possibly-hypothetical tree could have died of any number of causes, assuming it existed, but the big threat to the Park Blocks' remaining American elm trees is Dutch elm disease, a fungal plague that arrived here in the 1970s and has been slowly killing off the city's elm trees. There are official city programs, and volunteer efforts, and public awareness campaigns around trying to stop or slow down the disease, but it's possible all the elms in the Park Blocks are living on borrowed time. It's worth pointing out here that elm trees are not a native tree species in this part of the world, but it would still be sad to lose them all.

A few resistant strains of elm tree have been located or developed, and in 1995 a maybe-replacement tree was planted just south of the "stump marker". It turns out the new tree was planted as a memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing, and was planted just weeks after the event.

In the Shadow of the Elm

In any case, the sculpture project was approved in 1983 as part of an effort to revitalize the South Park Blocks between Market and Jefferson. The idea that the Park Blocks would need revitalizing seems bizarre today, but apparently it was deemed necessary at the time. The project was funded with $50,000 from the National Park Service, via the "Emergency Jobs Act of 1983" (an economic stimulus bill which was generally seen as unsuccessful.)

The most surprising thing about In the Shadow of the Elm is that it's three decades old, and was not invented as part of a Portlandia sketch. I mean, an elaborate civic memorial to a tree? A tree that may not have even existed? That's a bit beyond "put a bird on it" or even "we can pickle that", if you ask me.

In the Shadow of the Elm

In the Shadow of the Elm recently acquired a cheery tropical sibling: In the Shadow of the Palm was created in December 2012 during an artistic residency at the Robert Rauschenberg estate in Captiva, Florida. I think I actually like the sibling better, just because it involves sunshine and palm trees.

In the Shadow of the Elm

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