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The Greening of Baltimore

UMBC Program Brings Together Forestry and Art

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 10/25/2000

For centuries, great thinkers have wondered about the auditory effect of a tree falling in the forest. Now, thanks to a unique partnership between a state-university art gallery and 21 local organizations, modern philosophers can ponder a new question: If a community gathers around a tree planting, does the result become art?

The answer to that question is a definitive yes, says Renee van der Stelt, the driving force behind the Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership. The project seeks to combine artistic expression, community-building, and urban forestry through four tree plantings planned for the next six months.

As projects coordinator for the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), van der Stelt was casting about this summer for large-scale art projects that would help the school reach out to the greater community. "We wanted to reach into the city and make contacts in the city," she says. "We wanted to extend beyond the gallery walls, bring art to the people."

She turned to the legacy of Joseph Beuys, a German artist who undertook to plant 7,000 oak trees, each matched with a stone marker, in Kassel, Germany. Beuys began the project in 1982 as part of Documenta 7, an international art exhibit, and he ended up inventing "social sculpture," a term he coined to describe the process of artists and citizens working together to beautify the world and work on social issues. Beuys died a year before "7,000 Oaks" was completed in 1987, but his project inspired similar social-sculpture tree plantings around the world, including those at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., where van der Stelt once worked.

Beuys considered his "7,000 Oaks" and other like-minded projects to be marriages of his interests in the arts and the environment. "Thus, '7,000 Oaks' is a sculpture referring to people's life, to their everyday work," Beuys said in a 1986 interview with a Swiss publication. "That is my concept of art, which I call the extended concept or art of social sculpture."

That philosophy resonated with van der Stelt as she settled into her new home in Baltimore in August 1999. "I'm from Minnesota and I love trees," she says. "I thought Baltimore needed more trees, especially in the city."

So van der Stelt hooked up with the TKF Foundation, an Annapolis-based private funder that supports urban green space, public art, and urban agriculture as opportunities to foster community. The foundation agreed to fund Phase I of the project, which includes the autumn planting of 100 trees each at Carroll Park and Patterson Park, followed by 12 trees at Wyman Park and 30 at UMBC in the spring. A dedication ceremony/celebration follows each planting, and van der Stelt has planned a panel discussion and all-day conference on "Social Sculpture, Beuys, and Greening Initiative" for the spring.

The latter helps fulfill the project's educational component, which also includes programming for college students from UMBC and the Shriver Center (a national community-education foundation headquartered at UMBC), as well as for students from Pigtown's 21st Century Threshold Project, an after-school program for children in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

The Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership boasts a full roster of community groups, from the Butchers Hill Community Association to the Washington Village Pigtown Planning Council. Van der Stelt considers their participation essential. "We had to get other people involved in this project," she says, adding, "We don't have ownership issues" of either the project or the trees, which will need maintenance to survive in urban settings. "If any of the 20 organizations want to take this up and call it the Beuys Project, great."

The city's Bureau of Parks Forestry Division has also embraced the project, providing equipment and some manpower. The remaining names on the partnership list are arts and cultural groups, including the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Fells Point Creative Alliance. Their presence raises the original question: Is it art?

Todd Bockley, the co-director of Minnesota's Center for Social Sculpture and a consultant who will participate in the Baltimore plantings and programming, answers yes. "Our idea of creativity needs to be expanded," he says. "We need to get creativity out of a gallery."

While Bockley, a former art-gallery owner, refers to the conceptual nature of the project as artistic--"The quality of the experience is what matters," he says--van der Stelt believes social sculpture is physically artistic as well, and she turns to Beuys and his "7,000 Oaks" to bolster her claim.

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