Local Arts

This artist ‘sculpts’ in living trees and fruit. Here’s what he’s doing now in Charlotte

Sam Van Aken’s “The Open Orchard” is strong on message and magic. It is also serene – a calm, quiet spot in the middle of an obsessive, years-long project.

At first glance, “The Open Orchard” – at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation through Aug. 25 – looks like something out of a natural history museum, abundant with botanical illustrations and plant specimens. It is also a workspace with a large plant press and studio tables covered with branches, copper etching plates and books.

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Artist Sam Van Aken amid his work at the McColl Center: “I feel compelled to share with people as I learn things.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Van Aken, an associate professor of studio arts at Syracuse University, is in residence at the McColl Center through July 24. He is best known for Tree of 40 Fruit, a project that he has called “sculpture by grafting” and results in 40 different stone fruits on a single tree, a compact orchard. He started his first tree about a decade ago, using heirloom, native and other varieties he rescued from a research orchard. It is a painstaking, multi-year process, but these trees can now be found on more than a dozen sites throughout the country.

Artist’s rendering of Tree of 40 Fruit: Grafting produces one tree that bears 40 different kinds of stone fruit. This is how it looks in bloom. Courtesy of Sam Van Aken

Van Aken grew up on a dairy farm. Grafting was not practiced there, but his grandfather showed him how to do it; Van Aken’s great grandfather made a living grafting peach trees in Pennsylvania.

Tree of 40 Fruit was initially conceived solely as a work of visual art, with the goal of creating a succession of blooms and fruits. Van Aken concentrated on acquiring varieties that were either important commercially, important parent varieties of other fruit or historically grown in the United States. But as he came to realize how difficult to obtain many of these varieties had become, his project took on deeper significance. He now considers Tree of 40 Fruit an artwork, a research project and a form of conservation.

Van Aken is now moving from the compact to the expansive. While Tree of 40 Fruit compresses an orchard into a single tree, the Open Orchard, located on an island in New York, will comprise up to 300 varieties grafted on to individual trees. (Details of this project will be announced later this summer.)

The orchard has been Van Aken’s primary obsession for the past four years.

Sam Van Aken - Untitled (Plum bole)
“Untitled (Plum bole),” 2014/17. A trunk section (those are called “boles”), collected in 2014 from the last research plum orchard in the eastern United States. JOHN WYNN

“The Open Orchard” at the McColl Center is the exhibition/workshop component of this ongoing project. Two walls of the gallery are lined with Van Aken’s delicate botanical illustrations of various fruits he has been working with over the years and which will be included in the orchard. (During his residency, he has been making copperplate etchings based on these drawings.)

Then there are plant specimens, presented in ways ranging from the traditional to the fanciful. Herbarium specimens – again, of varieties included in Tree of 40 Fruit and the Open Orchard – are arrayed formally against a wall. There are specimens in the press and scattered across worktables, from a community project Van Aken has been leading in the gallery. And suspended from the ceiling are peach wands – peach branches gathered during a solar eclipse and soaked in a salt bath until the water evaporates – that are said to be the original magic wands. This nod to the mystical is also an acknowledgment of old-time grafters, who were esteemed in their rural communities and thought to possess almost magical powers.

Sam Van Aken - Eclipse Peach
“Eclipse Peach,” 2017. These are peach “wands” – 24- to 36-inch sections of branches from this year’s growth. John Wynn Courtesy of the artist

Community engagement is built into the Open Orchard, which, when it opens, will be accessible to the public. While at the McColl Center, Van Aken is doing projects in the gallery with students from Studio 345 and Behailu Academy and teaching grafting to participants in Urban Ministry Center’s SABER (Substance Abuse Education and Recovery) program. Just one more important element in a project that fuses the artistic, the botanical, the mystical, and a substantial dose of generosity and goodwill.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

‘Sam Van Aken: The Open Orchard’

Through Aug. 25 at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation; 721 N. Tryon St.; mccollcenter.org; 704-332-5535.

McColl Center artist-in-residence Sam Van Aken works with art students from Studio 345, a program for CMS high school students. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com