One man, one tree, 40 fruit: Artist Van Aken to present for BTG on unusual project, implications for agriculture

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“The Tree of 40 Fruit” is an ongoing series of hybridized fruit trees by contemporary artist Sam Van Aken.

When Sam Van Aken was confronted with the decision of whether to remain in his family business or to branch out, he found he was able to do both.

Van Aken, who grew up on a family farm in Pennsylvania, is the visual artist and Syracuse University professor behind the “Tree of 40 Fruit,” an art project that uses fruit trees as its medium. Each of his trees contains more than 40 antique, heirloom and rare varieties of stone fruits, including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and even almonds.

Van Aken will give a Brown Bag lecture at 12:15 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall, where he will discuss how he sculpts his unusual trees, his inspiration for the project and its implications for agriculture.

The artist creates his trees through the process of grafting, a horticulture method that joins the tissues from two plants so they grow on the same branch.

“I add tiny buds onto a branch — usually a branch from the year before — and then a year or two later they form new branches,” Van Aken said. “In that process, I can essentially design how the tree grows.”

Throughout most of the year, the trees look like any other trees, but when the fruits ripen in the summertime, they reveal a multitude of different colored fruits.

This isn’t the first time Van Aken has incorporated nature into his work, as he had previously grafted together vegetables and flowers. But in 2008, he decided he wanted to make a plant that lasted longer.

“The next move was to start working with trees,” he said. “The original plan was to do an orchard of individual trees that would all blossom at different times in different colors. Then I realized I could collapse a single orchard into one tree through the process of grafting.”

Van Aken chose to work with stone fruits because of their diversity and the ease with which they can be grafted together. Though his family’s farm included peaches, he was unaware of the level of diversity among stone fruits before starting the project.

“I thought there were essentially two types of plums: purple and blue plums,” he said. “As I got further and further into the project, I realized that there are thousands and thousands of different varieties of fruits, and we only get to try very few of them.”

The difference in taste between the varieties, he said, is quite significant.

After researching and experimenting for a few years, Van Aken saw his vision become a reality. He has now produced 16 trees that live in museums and galleries throughout the country. Though many of the varieties were developed in central New York, the trees can thrive in most temperate climates.

Van Aken carefully selected many aspects of his project for their metamorphic value, from his decision to create the trees through grafting to the number of varieties he incorporated.

Grafting, he said, pops up frequently as a metaphor in literature.

“In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s used as a metaphor for hybridity and sexuality,” he said. “Shakespeare uses it in a quote to talk about love.”

As for the number of varieties, Van Aken originally began his project with 100 varieties in mind, but settled on 40, a number that felt more significant to him because of its occurrence throughout Western religious texts. The number is mentioned 146 times in Scripture.

Mary Lou Parlato, who organizes the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s Brown Bag lecture series, said the club was introduced to Van Aken’s work last year because he was teaching a course with the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution. She became enthralled with his visually striking project.

“Initially, I thought, ‘Are some people going to be concerned because he’s making something that isn’t natural?’ ” she said. “But the fact is that this is his way of preserving these stone fruits, because otherwise they’ll be lost.”

Though the project makes a powerful political statement against the monoculture that is prevalent in farming today, Van Aken said it is, first and foremost, an art project.

“It just so happens that conserving these different heirloom and antique varieties is a byproduct,” he said.

Despite its metaphorical significance, Van Aken hopes that people will interpret the project in their own ways.

“One of the things I’ve aimed for through the project is that when people would see the tree blossoming in different colors, it would almost be like the beginning of a story, and that, that would start to generate narratives,” he said. “Other than that, I think it’s important that people build their own symbolism from it.”