Irish-born artist Katie Holten is encouraging New Yorkers to commune with nature this summer through her interactive Tree Museum, a public art project along the four-and-a-half-mile Grand Concourse that connects Manhattan to the north Bronx.
Katie conceptualized, planned, and executed the Museum, which consists of 100 trees along the concourse and was commissioned by the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Wave Hill, and the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation.
Each tree is numbered and outfitted with a sign that provides, along with the species name in English, Spanish, and Latin, a phone number for viewers to call in order to access recordings of the sounds of the borough: animal and insect noises, local music and, at the heart of the exhibit, the voices of those who live and work in the Bronx.
The audio guide speaks with the authority of local and global knowledge alike, encompassing the vast history and the everyday present of the area with contributors ranging from architect Daniel Libeskind and urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter to community garden activists and neighborhood teenagers.
Katie met with each of the participants, gaining a plethora of individual perspectives on the physical space and social history of the Grand Concourse.
“After meeting someone and having a conversation it would usually be pretty obvious what their story should be,” said Katie in an interview with Irish America.
“When I met Willie Mae Simmons, Lurry Boyd and the other members of the Townsend Avenue Community Garden, they showed me their peachtrees and said they love to have people pop in and help themselves to peaches and other fruits as they usually have too many for themselves. So, their story was about the history of the garden, and Lurry invites listeners to visit and help themselves to some peaches.”
One of Katie’s favorite specimens is the Amur Corktree growing directly outside All Hallows High School, whose students have collaborated on projects with the Tree Museum and whose headmaster is, coincidentally, from Cork.
“It's the only Corktree in the Tree Museum and its branches are contorted and really windblown—quite unusual, and it reminds me of trees in the west of Ireland!” Another tree that stands out for her is an American Elm outside Cardinal Hayes High School. “It's really large and old, probably as old as the Concourse. Eric Sanderson, landscape ecologist, speaks on the audio guide and his story is about how the Grand Concourse and the South Bronx was 400 years ago, at the time Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River (2009 is the quadracentennial of the event).”
Katie Holten was born in Dublin in 1975, the eldest of four children, and grew up in the Longford countryside, “surrounded by fields with cows.” In reflecting on how her childhood in the landscape of Ireland influenced her work, Katie said, “the garden was always important in our family and I remember getting up very early, at dawn, to weed…I loved weeding, walking the fields, and climbing trees, and I’ve always felt very connected to place. All of my work as an artist comes out of this interest in place and inherent connection to the land.” At age ten, Katie moved with her family to Ardee, Co. Louth, where her mother still lives and where Katie returns to visit when possible.
Katie studied fine art and history of art at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and the Hochschule der Kunste in Berlin. She represented Ireland at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 and came to New York in 2004 on a Fulbright Scholarship, “specifically to look at 'nature' in the urban context. It was something I didn't really know about, as I grew up in the countryside … I really started to see how alien 'nature' is to city dwellers. I see everything as part of nature—buildings, skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels, suburban homes, farms, motorways—it's all planted on the earth and part of the 'system' of the planet. It's the interconnectedness of things that interests me.”
The Tree Museum opened June 21 with a parade from the Bronx Museum of the Arts to the Lorelei Fountain in Joyce Kilmer Park. It remains through October 12. Katie will have a solo exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin in early 2010.