L.A. arboretum turns wind-toppled trees into artistic windfall

It was almost one year ago when wicked Santa Anas sent hurricane-force winds through Los Angeles County, whipping off roofs, snapping power lines and leaving 350,000 residents in the dark for up to a week. But perhaps the greatest toll was felt by the region's trees, thousands of which were de-limbed, uprooted or snapped in half, their century-old trunks splintered like toothpicks.

When the staff at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden arrived back at work in Arcadia, they found 235 trees destroyed and 1,000 damaged. Leigh Adams, an artist-in-residence for the arboretum, remembers feeling the “gut-punch” when she first surveyed the scene. It was as if a giant hand had swept through, she said, “not just knocking down trees, but twisting and turning their branches.”

The grounds were closed for three weeks as scientists assessed the damage — and began to see opportunity, given the range of species and value of the wood, said senior biologist James E. Heinrich. Local artists saw the value too.

“Almost instantaneously we started receiving calls from people saying, ‘Do you have wood you're willing to get rid of?'” Heinrich said.

In the end, the downed trees were distributed among 130 artists, furniture designers and wood turners with the understanding that their artworks, bowls, tables, sculptures, games and jewelry would be turned over to the arboretum for exhibition.

The result is “Forces of Nature,” featuring select works from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 — the same dates as the three-day storm last year. The pieces will be sold at a live and silent auction starting at 6 p.m. Nov. 30. All artists are giving some of the proceeds to the arboretum, and some are pledging all of their sales to purchase new trees.

PHOTO GALLERY: "Forces of Nature"

Of course, giving away 60-year-old trees owned by the county isn't like selling firewood. The process took a vote by county supervisors, the identification and labeling of each tree, then the monumental task of cutting the wood into pieces that could be hauled away.

The 46 types of trees included decorative wood such as persimmon and black walnut, as well as Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus, Engelmann oak and other rare specimens.

“We saw their exuberance and exhilaration over getting these large chunks of such unusual species, and then instantly they were in books or on the Internet looking up the characteristics of the wood,” said Adams, the show's curator. “They were helping each other.”

Compton sculptor Charles Dickson claimed the earpod, a South American tree with a massive, 5-foot-diameter trunk.

“As soon as I saw this on the lawn, I said, ‘That's the piece I want,'” Dickson said. “I always wanted to carve something on this scale.”

Dickson needed a forklift to move it.

From one of the limbs, Dickson created a sculpture of women holding up a portal to the sky. The rest of the earpod took the form of a bench, one of the arboretum's signature peacocks chain-sawed into the veined wood. The point of the bench, the artist said, was for people to touch and “be a part of it.” Indeed, visitors perched on one of the bench's throne-like seats will feel the tree's grain and smell its peppery sap. It's a rare treat, given that the arboretum used to have three earpods — and that only one still stands.

“The county's prepared for all kinds of disasters, and there are guidelines and recommendations for all that. But what you do with the debris is a different kind of scenario,” Heinrich said of this collaboration among artists and biologists. “It was an opportune moment, and it's working out very well to everyone's advantage.”

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