Artist Sam Van Aken discusses his thought-provoking project and its place at the intersection of farming, sculpture, and preservation.
A ward-winning contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken grew up on a family farm in Reading, Pennsylvania, but he spent his college years and much of his early career focused on art rather than agriculture. While Van Aken says that his work has always been "inspired by nature and our relationship to nature," it wasn't until recently that the artist's farming background became such a clear and significant influence, first in 2008 when he grafted vegetables together to create strange plants for his Eden exhibition, and then shortly after that when he started to work on the hybridized fruit trees that would become the Tree of 40 Fruit.
Each tree begins as a slightly odd-looking specimen resembling some kind of science experiment, and for much of the year, looks like just any other tree. In spring, the trees bloom to reveal an incredibly striking and thought-provoking example of what can happen when nature inspires art. Then, over the course of several months, Van Aken's trees produce an incredible harvest of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and almonds, including many you've likely never seen before.
Thus far, Van Aken has created and placed 16 trees in museums, community centers, and private art collections around the country, including in Newton, Massachusetts; Pound Ridge, New York; Short Hills, New Jersey; Bentonville, Arkansas; and San Jose, California. Using a unique process he calls "sculpture through grafting," Van Aken creates trees that grow and support more than 40 varieties of stone fruit, including many heirloom, antique, and native varieties.
On the heels of Van Aken's TEDxManhattan talk, we spoke with him about the Tree of 40 Fruit, how he developed and executed the concept, his plans for the future, and what happens to all that fruit.
Epicurious: What is the Tree of 40 Fruit and what inspired the project?
Sam Van Aken: At the time this project began I was doing a series of radio hoaxes where I hijacked commercial radio station frequencies and played my own commercials and songs. In addition to becoming acquainted with FCC regulations I also discovered that the term "hoax" comes from "hocus pocus," which in turn comes from the Latin "hoc est enim corpus miem," meaning "this is my body" and it's what the Catholic priest says over the bread during [the] Eucharist, transforming it into the body of Christ. This process is known as transubstantiation and [it] led me to wonder how I could transubstantiate a thing. How could the appearance of a thing remain the same while the reality changed? And so, I transubstantiated a fruit tree. Through the majority of the year it is a normal-looking fruit tree until spring when it blossoms in different tones [of] pink, white, and crimson, and late in summer it bears [more than] 40 different types of fruit.
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