Sculptor Charles Ray: The man who lives inside a tree

Sculptor Charles Ray: The man who lives inside a tree

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The year was 1997. While driving up the central coast of California, Chicago-born sculptor Charles Ray made a discovery that would impact the next ten years of his life: a massive fallen tree decomposing in a meadow just off the highway. He describes the moment he saw the tree this way:

I was instantly drawn to it. It was not only a beautiful log, but to my eyes, it was perfectly embedded in the meadow where it had fallen decades earlier. Pressure from the weather, insects, ultraviolet radiation, and gravity were evident. Total collapse appeared to be no more than a handful of years away. I was inspired to make a sculpture.

And that he did. He created a sculpture that is surprising and captivating. It is impressive in its scale and in its detail, in its precision and in the way it uses the man-made not to mimic but to re-interpret the natural.

Working with Japanese carvers who normally fashion sacred wooden Buddhas displayed in temples, Ray created an intricately carved, life-sized replica of this decaying wooden tree. And he did so not in fiberglass or cloth or stone (all options he considered at one point) but in wood. He explains his decision this way:

When I asked [master carver Yuboku] Mukoyoshi about the wood and how it would behave over time, he told me that the wood would be fine for 400 years and then it would go into a crisis; after two hundred years of splitting and cracking, it would go into slow decline for another 400 years. I realized then that the wood, like the original log, had a life of its own, and I was finally able to let my project go and hopefully breathe life into the world that surrounds it.

The sculpture would eventually carry the title Hinoki, named for the sacred Japanese cypress wood from which it’s carved. But before he was able to create this finished piece, now on display in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ray had to figure out how to get hold of this enormous tree.

In the audio excerpt above, Ray explains how he got the tree, and why he had to be sneaky about it. He spoke at the Art Institute in March, in a talk moderated by art historian Bernhard Mendes Burgi. (I highly recommend listening to Ray’s whole talk with Burgi. The way he describes making this sculpture start to finish is fascinating.)

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Charles Ray spoke at an event presented by The Art Institute of Chicago in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.