Emanuel wants to turn dying trees into public art

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Dead or dying trees infested with the emerald ash borer could be brought back to life—as public art.

City Hall, the Chicago Park District and Chicago Sculpture International have forged a partnership to commission 10 local artists to turn “dying tree shafts” into whimsical pieces of public art.

The designated artists were culled from a request issued last fall that triggered concepts ranging from “carved tree shafts to additive concepts that will use a variety of materials,” officials said.

Thanks to the so-called “Chicago Tree Project,” patrons of seven Chicago parks—Washington, Marquette McGuane, Armour Square, Humboldt, Olympia and Riis—will start seeing “carved or artistically modified trees” over the next several months.

Some of the work is already completed or underway.

In Jackson Park, artist Margot McMahon has hung a cast/sculpted owl and other song birds from the limbs of a 125-year-old elm tree.

In McGuane Park, artist J. Taylor Wallace embarked this week on a weekslong carving project using a Honey Locust tree that the mayor’s office described as an “ascending spiral concept to complement the tree’s natural form and growth pattern.”

Eric Stephenson, president of Chicago Sculpture International, likened the tree project to, “Cows on Parade,” the wildly popular public art program during the Daley years.

“Public art is a fun way to engage the public. First, was was the cows. Now it’s the trees. Our goal is to activate these trees that are slowly being condemned around the city due to the Emerald Ash Borer and other bug diseases,” he said.

“We’re told there are close to 100,0000 trees that are gonna die over the next five to ten years. We’re trying to honor the life of the tree since green spaces are so important and draw attention to those spaces. Some of the trees will be physically carved. Some will have sculptures added to it. Some will be adorned with objects or coverings.”

Stephenson noted that the trees will remain under Park District control, even after they’re converted into public art.

“It’s under their discretion. When trees are eventually comproimsed. They’ll be torn down Whether that’s two months or two years, we don’t know,” he said.

Emanuel’s Cultural Plan for Chicago set a goal of bringing public art to Chicago neighborhoods, instead of just concentrating it downtown.

The Chicago Tree Project will do just that. It will use “art as a vehicle for community engagement” in the parks to create “unique opportunities” for Chicagoans to “celebrate the beauty of nature,” the press release states.

“Chicago is one of the world’s greatest arts and culture capitals, and every Chicagoan should have the opportunity to experience art and culture, no matter their zip code,” Emanuel was quoted as saying.

“The Chicago Tree Project joins programs like Sculpture on the Boulevards, Night Out in the Parks and installations of public art along the lakefront to bring art directly to Chicago residents.”

Chemical company experts have warned that Chicago risks losing all 91,000 of its parkway trees— triggering removal and replacement costs as high as $100 million by 2020 — unless the city  steps up treatment for the tree-killing emerald ash borer.

The city is in no position to make that investment, nor does Emanuel believe it’s necessary. But he has acknowledged the need to start down that long road—and did by devoting $1 million to the problem in his 2013 budget and $1.6 million more this year.

“You can’t deal with it in one year. You’ve got to deal with the disease. Some of ’em, you’ve got to remove. Some of ’em, you’ve got to treat, then re-planting,” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times two years ago.

“When it comes to forestry — both planting of trees, which helps on the value of a home, as well as the quick response for a 311 call — we will have more crews at a price we can afford. And they’ll be on an efficient system to respond to our residents [so] 20,000 more trees will be trimmed than we could have done before.”

The Emanuel administration claims it can save the vast majority of the 85,000 ash trees on public property. By injecting ash trees every three years with the pesticide called Tree-age, city officials hope they can avoid a massive cut.

“As long as we are treating trees, we will have a solid ash population in the city,” said John Lough, a senior forester for the city. “We’ve had very good results with it.”

But given the cost, others question whether the long-term will to treat trees actually exists.

Since last fall, city workers have cut down roughly 145 ash trees in one Northwest Side ward alone, officials said.

It was not the first time beetle-infested ash trees have had to come down in Chicago, according to city officials. Citywide, an estimated 10,000 ash trees on public property will eventually meet the business end of a chain saw, according to city statistics.

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