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Berkeleyan

A quirky, comfortable chunk of Quercus

| 22 October 2003

 



Sculptor and artist (and 20-year Berkeley staffer) Jain Hutzell sits squarely atop her latest creation
Joe Sartelle photo

A large section of a mighty oak that stood near Faculty Glade before the founding of the university — and that, in failing health, was felled not long ago — has been painstakingly crafted into a “sculptural seating” by a campus staffer.

Jain Hutzell, a student affairs officer in the Office of Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies, is a painter and sculptor who saw the tree being cut down and asked that a chunk be saved for her. Soon a section was chosen, picked up with a forklift, and trundled over to the sculpture yard in the back of Kroeber Hall, to spend a year aging in the open air.

Though she knew she wanted to do something with it, she had no clear idea of what that might be. But Hutzell was aware of two things from the outset. “When the tree was lying there on Faculty Glade for a month or so,” she recalls, “people took to it: they were climbing over it, touching it, seeking connection with this entity.” More prosaically, the way the chunk was laid down at Kroeber “gave it three points to rest on — which of course is a classic architectural principle to ensure stability.”

But the notion of converting the large segment of trunk to a seating area still wasn’t fully formed: there was more conceptual work to be done. “I would visit the piece over the course of the year,” Hutzell recalls, “just lean against it, spending a few minutes here and there, getting to know it physically and spatially. I imagined a variety of things I could impose on the material, but that didn’t seem to be honoring the origins and life of the tree.” She came to realize that the portion of the tree she’d been given — “the remaining representative of this living organism” — was enough in and of itself. “I could add nothing,” she says, “but I could help make it possible for this piece to have interaction with humans and oaks again.”

The sculptural seating that now rests beneath a large, thriving oak between Kroeber and Wurster Halls indeed interacts with humans on a daily basis, as passersby become familiar with the three seating arrangements it affords. “You have to be pretty long-legged to hop up on the very smallest seat in the middle,” Hutzell says, “but it also works as a table. The short seat is great for those of us with short legs to sit on and swing our legs like kids, while the long seat can allow anyone, short or tall, to stretch out their legs.”

Hutzell credits campus landscape architect Jim Horner and director of grounds maintenance Bob Costa for their support of the temporary installation. She hopes it will become a permanent fixture, a designation requiring approval by the campus Subcommittee on Campus Art. And she may not stop there: “We’ve got some beautiful redwoods lying here in the eucalyptus grove,” she muses, “and I could see creating some additional seating out of those.”