The Tree People

Joe Wheelwright is a big guy. He thinks big. He acts big. He sculpts big. Like I said, he’s a big guy. No surprise that his sculptures in the courtyard at the Katonah Museum are at least three times his six foot three size. They are actually totem-like tree people, certainly worth a trip to the museum, if not just to wonder whether Hansel and Gretel may have encountered creatures like these as they tried to flee the forest. The show will be there until the end of May.

I hadn’t seen Joe’s work since 1991 when I left as CEO of the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) where Joe had a studio. The BCA is an artists’ complex in the South End with working studios, theaters, galleries and the historic Cyclorama. Joe’s artwork was traditionally made of nature’s hand-me-downs such as boulders and branches, but twenty years ago, he was obsessed with wheels. At night, in my Cyclorama office, I would hear Joe testing out one of his inventions—the Wheelwright skates. While he won the American Express new product award, regrettably he sold only 1,000 pairs, gave it up and put all his inventive energy back into his sculpture.

With these memories in mind, I rang him up at his Dorchester studio to learn that in the intervening years he bought an industrial dry cleaning building for a song, cleaned out the toxic stuff and created some 50 studios for artists down the street from Symphony Hall. “I have more studios than the BCA,” he joked, and of course that’s a good thing that Boston continues to keep its edge as an artists’ city.  Joe’s massive studio is in the old rug and curtain division. He also has a crane and a foundry at his home in Vermont, where he frequently hatches his big ideas. There he is able to turn his tree people into bronze, but of course that is too expensive so most of them will eventually rot. Nature’s life cycle does not dampen Joe’s love of branches, trees and roots. “Just like humans, they stretch and reach out.”

“Just let me know anytime you have an idea,” he said to me in parting. So I told him about the two uprooted trees in my yard which fell down during the recent hurricane. He was hooked. So we’ll get together on Mother Nature’s watch, thanks to Hurricane Irene and the museum’s Nancy Wallach who discovered his work.

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