Labor of Limbs
Richard Reames bends living trees into works of art
From the winding roads of Williams Highway, trees line the hilltops in a blanket of green as far as the eye can see. Among the lush background of Richard Reames’s tree farm, one tree, vastly different from the others, stands out from the rest. Instead of growing straight and tall, its midsection curves into a peace sign. The cherry tree is one of his intricate sculptures that zig, zag, and swirl in ways that defy logic. While nature has inspired artists for centuries, Reames takes this one step further: he turns living trees into art.
His dogs nip at the heels of his sturdy brown work boots as Reames, forty-seven, strides from his self-built log cabin to the adjacent Arborsmith Studios, his workshop and gallery. A graying beard frames his leathery face, and his coarse, unkempt hair is tied in a stubby ponytail at the nape of his neck. His army-green clothes almost blend in with the trees around him. The clear, silver-blue eyes of this quiet, unpretentious man display a fierce belief in the potential of his unique art to change how humans relate to the landscape.
Trees of the same species can share resources when they are grafted together.
With the steady and careful hands of a sculptor, Reames starts his day’s work. As his strong, calloused fingers coax the supple wood of a seven-foot alder sapling, one of fourteen young trees that form a semicircle around the peace sign tree, the sun breaks through the clouds and shines brightly on the plant’s dewy leaves. In every direction, arborsculpture projects stand in varying stages of growth. Two birch trees weave together to form a hole resembling the portal into Alice’s Wonderland. On the opposite end of Reames’s gallery, an alder twists into a crooked, three-dimensional cube before merging into a single leafy treetop. Scattered throughout the yard, thin, young “experiment trees” shoot up from the rich soil, weaving, winding, and connecting. In another corner, living benches and chairs grow strong enough to support a full-grown man. To prove it can be done, Reames sits on a chair made from an Oregon ash, and with the proud look of a king atop his throne, he tells his favorite joke: “See? After all these years, I can finally just sit on my ash.”
While Reames enjoys the simple life, he is dedicated to expanding the practical possibilities of his art. After experimenting with grafting trees into simple shapes like hearts, peace signs, and curlicues, he is working on a living house made of pear, peach, and apple trees. Located in the center of Arborsmith Studios, his project reaches ten feet high and is in full springtime blossom. It’s just in the beginning stages of growth, but in about fifty years, the trees’ bark will grow together into a single treetop roof. Reames hopes that once the house is full grown, he will be able to pluck the fruit right off the walls.
“The first year, they sleep. The second year, they creep, and the third year, they leap.”
“You can extrapolate on this idea,” Reames says, gesturing to a living staircase growing five feet from the fruit house. “You could grow living furniture out of the house’s walls and floors. You could have an entire house that forms one connected tree.” He grins. “And maybe in fifty years, when the fruit house is done, it’ll be time to grow the nut house.”
After years of wandering the West Coast, Reames found his life’s work in his unconventional art. He knew he would never be happy working a normal nine-to-five job, so as a “volunteer homeless person,” he spent ten years thumbing rides and hiking through forests. Along the way, he met his future wife, Maya. But settling down was far from his mind — until he found out his wife was pregnant. Shaken by this news, Reames went into the woods near Williams Highway to contemplate the direction his life should take. As he watched the trees swaying in the midsummer breeze, he prayed for answers. “I asked the universe for guidance,” Reames recalls. “And I flashed back to Axel Erlandson’s Tree Circus I had visited as a child. I knew I wanted to discover the secrets to his trees and spread [them] to the world.”
Although Reames grew up ten miles away from the Tree Circus in Santa Cruz, California, he never considered the impact it would have on his life. Axel Erlandson, the enigmatic creator of the exhibition, developed an amazing display of living trees on his property that he turned into a roadside attraction. When asked how he got his trees to grow so impossibly, Erlandson would whimsically reply, “It’s simple — I talk to them.” Erlandson later regretted that he hadn’t found an apprentice and that his art was doomed to wither and die trapped inside his neglected giants. He never witnessed the work of Richard Reames.
The three-dimensional cube crafted from an alder shows a lighthearted side to Reames’s art.
“With his trees, Erlandson opened up the door to a field of possibilities,” Reames says. “I understand why Erlandson kept his art a secret, but if we try to keep our art to ourselves, it only leads to our own constriction. Sharing attracts open people, and that’s when a synergy of ideas can happen.”
The philosophical roots of Reames’s arborsculpture are synergy and growth. Instead of emulating nature, his sculptures become nature. His trees counteract the ideas behind modern artificial and wasteful culture and prove that humans don’t have to destroy the environment to use it for comfort, shelter, and enjoyment. While art by definition implies human workmanship rather than natural creation, Reames’s sculptures demonstrate that humans and nature don’t have to exist in opposition.
Reames’s philosophy formulates the motto of Arborsmith Studios: “Growing trees into forests of ideas.” Through arborsculpture, Reames seeks to foster a love and deeper understanding of the environment by working with the trees to create his vision. Yet it isn’t always easy to work with nature. Curious, hungry deer often nibble at the delicate bark of his sculptures, and insects feast on the wood, causing them to rot. His trees also sunburn easily under the fierce summer sun because he strips the trees of their protective lower branches to form his designs. When one tree dies, Reames weaves in a new sapling and it eventually merges with the older trees. “All trees of the same species have the same root systems,” Reames explains. “It’s evolutionary altruism. Different species compete for the best soil and nutrients, but trees of the same species merge so that they can spread their type of seed.”
“If we try to keep our art to ourselves, it only leads to our own constriction.”
Despite the difficulties, Reames earns a successful living crafting arborsculptures for clients. When customers contact him, he makes travel arrangements and starts his projects using a pair of malleable five-year-old trees he transports in wine barrels. He plants the saplings on location, puts frames into the ground to control the trees’ growth, and grafts the branches so that they grow together into the shape of a chair, a table, or an abstract design. Once the initial grafting is finished, he returns once a year — all clients pay his travel and lodging fees — and prunes as needed. After three years, the living furniture is strong enough to sit on. Prices vary depending on the size and intricacy of the project; clients pay $700 for chairs, $1,000 for a three-person bench, and $5,000 for a gazebo. In eight years, Reames has created more than twenty-five arborsculptures for clients: gazebos, tables, benches, houses, nightstands, and sculptures. Individuals can even order pre-shaped trees from his catalog.
“When you have children, you can start planting their houses,” Reames says of the possibilities available to his clients. “By the time they are full grown, their new house will be, too.”
Reames stands next to his sculpted peace sign tree.
When he isn’t serving his clientele, Reames contributes to the Growing Village in Japan, a project with even greater artistic scope than Erlandson’s original Tree Circus. This project, a village composed entirely of living trees, contains play structures for children, chairs and benches upon which elders can tranquilly repose, and beautiful arborsculptures for everyone to enjoy. Reames also worked with John Gathright, creator and chief producer of the Growing Village, to grow a similar park called Mokshow-en, which means “Laughing Happy Tree Park.” It is home to hundreds of trees and won the Ecological Design Award from the Japanese Ministry of Industrial Design in 2002. “In general, arborsculpture has huge potential,” Reames says. “We’ve just begun scratching the surface.”
Reames explains that trees grow in three stages. “The first year, they sleep,” he says. “The second year, they creep, and the third year, they leap.” Reames is in his own leaping stage. He has finished planning his exhibit for the World Expo Fair, which is open until November, and the ambitious Reames doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Next year, he will publish his second book, Arborsculpture: Solutions for a Small Planet, the sequel to How to Grow a Chair, which he published in 1995. Reames will also teach his first class on arborscultpure at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina and hopes to begin a lecture tour of universities around the country. Reames’s devotion to spreading his art has been fruitful, and the possibilities for his ecological vision seem as vast as the forest surrounding Arborsmith Studios.