Building a tree in a bottle
Rising like a jungle of verdant flora out of the escalator lobby and above the open mezzanine of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Ambulatory Clinical Building’s second floor reception area, a new sculpture burgeons—a myriad of lush, leaflike forms that, although forged in steel, appear light and fluid. The Tree of Life is a major work by Albert Paley, one of America’s greatest living sculptors. Paley’s work can be found in such civic and corporate spaces as Houston’s opera house (Wortham Center), San Francisco’s Civic Center Courthouse, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tree of Life is Paley’s largest indoor sculpture.
Because the sculpture is so massive, standing more than 25 feet high and weighing six tons, one would assume that it had been constructed on-site as the facility was being built. But it wasn’t! Rather, Paley faced the daunting challenge of having to create a sculpture in his studio in Rochester, New York, and then figuring out how to deconstruct it into smaller pieces so that it could be reassembled in Houston—and he had six months to do it.
Thus, Paley forged the steel sculpture in his studio and then separated it into 60 pieces, each weighing from 100 to 700 pounds. Once the sculpture was disassembled, Paley painted each piece—a hugely difficult task in itself, as he had to imagine how all the colors would interact and contrast in the sculpture’s reconstructed state. It was then reassembled in Rochester to ensure everything was just right and disassembled yet again. All the pieces were numbered, packed, and shipped to M.D. Anderson.
There, the sculpture was put together like a huge three- dimensional puzzle. Installation of the enormous work was a major engineering challenge, with only a glass double door through which to bring the pieces, the small space allotted for the sculpture’s location, the equally tight space available in which to install it, and the fact that the sculpture (when installed) wraps around a structural support column of the building. As Paley says, “It was like building a ship in a bottle.”
The work was the result of collaborative discussions between American Art Resources and M.D. Anderson’s Art Committee. American Art Resources is an art-consulting firm based in Houston that focuses on creating healing environments for healthcare facilities. Paley says that when he was selected and was shown the site of this major new cancer clinic, “the question became, how could this sculpture somehow engage people in what is a very difficult time in their life? How can I reach them with this sculpture?”
When the 60 massive pieces were finally assembled, the completed work was truly greater than the sum of its parts. The Tree of Life took root in its new home, capturing the essence of a tree rising with all its strength, forms, colors, beauty, and life force. And, like a tree, it lifts the spirit.
The sculpture’s high visibility and whimsical forms make it an obvious wayfinding landmark. One of the ways to reduce stress, says Kathy Hathorn, president of American Art Resources, “is to use art to enhance wayfinding. This ultimately makes a better experience for visitors and patients coming to M.D. Anderson.” Or as Susan Lipka, executive director of Capital Planning and Management at M.D. Anderson, points out, the goal is “making the experience simple while creating opportunities to find joy in the building.”
Lipka adds, “I don’t think owners and builders of medical facilities will be successful if they don’t dedicate some of their funds to art. They need to start thinking about art as something necessary to a building’s success.”
The Tree of Life can be seen from any of the wide circulation corridors radiating from the central circulation area where the tree stands. Patients know they can find the information booth, volunteers to answer questions, wayfinding kiosks, telephones, and so forth there. But, in itself, the sculpture has become a landmark destination for many Houstonians and visitors. Like any beautiful tree, it inspires joy and promotes healing on many levels. HD
Max Eberts is Director of Communications, American Art Resources