Dead tree brings Arts Commission public arts proposal back to life

Published 9:28 am Friday, November 3, 2017

An old decaying tree, now stripped of its branches and bark at Constitution Square Historic Site, is going to become a new public work of art, thanks to quick thinking and creative minds. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also a procedural test of how to make public art a reality in historic downtown Danville.

According to Mimi Becker, director of the Arts Commission of Danville/Boyle County, public art can be defined as art available for the public to view without going inside a building and usually without any cost. 

“It’s public access and public availability,” she said.

Email newsletter signup

Becker said the commission thinks public art should also reflect the community or area in which it is placed. 

However, “We don’t want to decide what is art,” she explained. “We think public art should be thoughtful and appropriate for who we are (historic downtown),” therefore a formal process and guidelines for installing public art need to be discussed, she said. 

Back in 2012, the Arts Commission submitted its draft of “Art in Public Places Policy” to the Danville City Commission. Nothing ever came of the proposal and years passed without any action.

Now, with the Architectural Heritage Board’s new guidelines for its historic overlay district, the old dead tree has become a great test case for the process of installing public art, Becker said. At least it will begin a public discussion of what the process should be, she added.

At the center of this test case is rare, native, old Yellowwood tree, rooted in front of the Boyle County Chamber of Commerce office in Constitution Square. When large branches literally began falling in May, the county determined the tree needed to come down, Becker said. When workers started sawing off the limbs and branches, Becker said she realized there may an opportunity for art and quickly asked them not to take the trunk down to the ground, and they agreed to stop right there.

Becker said the Arts Commission seized this opportunity to turn the large dying tree into a work of art and at the same time, try out their original suggestions for a formal process in granting a public art project.

She contacted local artist Buck Graham and he agreed to spearhead the project.

“Buck did an excellent job about deciding what to do with the tree,” Becker said.

Graham started his proposal with scientific research about the tree species. His proposal continued, “I will lead a team effort to design and carve a relief ‘mural’ on the trunk and branches of the tree. So far, I have recruited local woodcarving artist Dennis Toadvine and a group of Centre College art students for the project.”

His vision for the trunk carving described in his proposal is, “a snapshot of central Kentucky in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The design is centered around the two primary routes used for settling Kentucky,” including the Cumberland Gap and Wilderness Road. Also, Graham and the others will be carving Kentucky icons along these routes depicting tobacco, corn, horses, black bear, bourbon and a log cabin which were all important in Kentucky’s history.

Jennifer Kirchner, director of the Danville/Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said “This has really come together to be a great kick-off to what hopefully will be a great future with incorporating art with the revision of the guidelines of the AHB. Everyone is really excited to expand what the arts are in Danville, so this is one of our first little tests of it … I think it’s fitting it’s at Constitution Square because we are always looking for ways to celebrate Kentucky’s history since we were the birthplace of the Commonwealth.”

She added that public art is already in a lot of Kentucky communities. Many times having public art has really revitalized the downtowns, Kirchner said. In fact, she said people are even traveling to underpasses to see graffiti murals.

If public art becomes more prominent in Danville, Kirchner envisions perhaps giving visitors maps to public art locations so they can enjoy and see our community in a unique and upclose perspective.

Because Graham’s proposal was OK’d and encouraged by the Arts Commission and members of Boyle County Fiscal Court, he began working on the project during a recent sunny afternoon by wrapping the trunk with pink construction paper. Using this as a rough map of the shape of the tree, he rolled it off and took it to Centre art students for them to use as a pattern when creating the design and plotting out the best locations for individual carvings.

Graham said he’ll bring the pattern back to the tree trunk and draw on the design. Then he and Toadvine will rough in the design using power tools. Eventually, the team will work together with chisels to carve the details. Hopefully, the project will be complete in May, Graham said.

He said this particular piece of public art is considered semi-permanent. Even after protecting the carving with three coats of oil-based urethane, “At some point it will rot,” Graham said and laughed.

Those are the kinds of things you have to consider with public art, Becker said. 

“You have to go through the whole process — how do you prepare it, how do you execute it and what’s going to happen to preserve it, and eventually what will happen to it.”

Public art should reflect the community, she said. But every project will still be different. For example, if someone wanted to install a public art display further down Main Street, it wouldn’t be like one that’s appropriate at Constitution Square. 

“We think the project should be designed to fit that particular space,” Becker said.

Since the AHB guidelines have recently been revised, Becker said the timing was right to pull out their old procedure draft and start a new conversation on how public art should be governed. She said she will be attending an AHB meeting soon to present their suggestions and proposals.

Kirchner said that AHB could take the proposals and update them, “or they could kick them to the curb.” But at least they will all be working on a process, she said.

With the opportunity to carve a work of art on what’s left of a dying tree, Graham said the Yellowwood tree is very soft and is known for being a good wood for carving. 

“We’re lucky it wasn’t Walnut!”