John Grade's Middle Fork, as seen hanging earlier this year at MadArt in Seattle.
Photo by John Grade

One Tree, Two Interpretations

An appreciation of the Western hemlock, as interpreted by artists John Grade and Mark Dion.

Earlier this year, two different buildings in Seattle’s urban core offered visitors a close-up view of a massive Western hemlock. The hemlock is our state tree and, ordinarily, isn’t that hard to find. But there it was, looking anything but usual: Sculpted out of small wood blocks, forming a giant tubular basket suspended in the air; or, looking like Sleeping Beauty, veiled in lush, mossy and occasionally creeping cover, outstretched in regenerative repose.


The Neukom Vivarium at the Olympic Sculpture Park teems with life including fungi, moss, fern, flowers and bugs
Photo by Glenn Nelson

Photo by Glenn Nelson

Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium has been housed at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park since 2007. It is a permanent but always evolving artwork, a 150-year-old hemlock retrieved after falling during a winter storm out in the Duwamish/Green River watershed. The tree now is a 60-foot nurse log, slowly decomposing as it nourishes new plants and critters in a specially-designed greenhouse that’s meant to evoke a morgue.

“This is nature as a verb. Nature as an action. Decaying and giving new life,” the artist says.

Dion grew up in New England. He lives in New York. His idea for this piece arrived when he first visited Seattle. “No one was interested in showing me the Calder or the Asian art museum. What everyone said to me was, ‘Have you seen the fish ladder?!’ That gave me a clue as to what’s important to people in Seattle− nature as process,” he says.

That process is also central to Middle Fork, the sculpture by John Grade that attracted all kinds of double takes while it hung in South Lake Union’s MadArt Space. A Seattle artist, Grade found a 140-year-old hemlock in North Bend, and he and his team made plaster molds of its trunk and limbs.


It took loads of volunteers and an estimated 10,000 hours to sculpt Middle Fork. The thickness of the sculpture, which is 5/8ths of an inch, loosely mirrors one year’s growth of an actual tree.
Photo by John Grade

Photo by John Grade

The molds then served as the base for creating a hollow and elaborate artwork in the gallery space; hundreds of volunteers carefully glued together small tiles made from salvaged old-growth cedar to build an exact replica of the tree. The 85-foot-long artwork was hoisted with wires to hang at eye level in the gallery, extending an invitation to look at, under and through the piece.

“As we walk about our daily lives we don’t always take the time to look at what’s around us,” Grade says. “That was my mindset: Let’s recognize the tree.”



Grade chose the hemlock because it’s average. He chose this particular tree to cast because he regarded it as having a pretty straightforward shape. But when the sculpture hung horizontally, that’s when Grade really could appreciate its individual, glorious contours.

Middle Fork is scheduled to travel on exhibition but its final destination will be where it began: Laid out at the foot of its muse, the actual hemlock out in the watershed, where it will moss over and slowly decompose. The fake tree will perish in a natural setting; the real one remains enclosed in a glass home.

  • Glenn Nelson

    Glenn Nelson is a journalist, photographer and Web entrepreneur in Seattle who is currently developing The Trail Posse to encourage diversity in the outdoors.

  • John Grade

    John Grade is a Seattle-based sculptor whose work has been exhibited at the Austin Contemporary Museum of Art, the University of Wyoming Art Museum, Western Washington University Gallery and in the cities of Portland and in Seattle. He’s the recipient of the 2013 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust Foundation in Washington State.