By William Valerio
These days of protest and speaking out are also a time for reflection and looking inward. For many of us, the arts offer a path to healing. Music can be a spiritual refuge, but for me (and this should come as no surprise) it’s the visual arts that get me through.
This past Thursday, Woodmere was delighted to welcome a new work of art to our grounds, one that has been a dream for many years: Untitled (2002), a bronze root sculpture by Steve Tobin. Since Philadelphia is now in the “yellow phase,” we invite you to come see it for yourself—while wearing a mask and observing appropriate social distance, of course.
While you’re at the museum, take a self-guided tour of our outdoor sculpture and ecological features, what we’re calling Woodmere’s Outdoor Wonder, or WOW for short. The Museum’s doors may remain closed, but there’s plenty of WOW across our six acres. Use your smartphone to follow the map you can find here or pick up a printed copy from the box on our front porch. There’s a QR code associated with every feature. Scan it with your smartphone’s camera to learn more and check back through the summer as the WOW evolves.
Tobin is a Philadelphia artist with an international profile. But the sculpture at Woodmere is his first work in a public space in our city. In the early 2000s, Tobin began creating bronze casts of the actual roots of upturned trees. The most famous example—and one of the most well-known sculptures in the US—is his Trinity Root, a cast of the stump and roots of a sycamore tree that was smashed by debris during the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The large canopy of the seventy-year-old tree helped shield St. Paul’s Chapel, part of Trinity Church, from the blast. The sculpture was installed at Trinity Church for many years, and recently moved to Connecticut.
To be sure, Tobin’s roots represent a feat of engineering virtuosity. The artist is known for devising ways to do things that haven’t been possible before. It was no ordinary project to cast every intricate tendril, preserving the range of natural textures and the hundreds of twisting, organic forms. The sculpture has a delicate, dancer-like quality that belies its strength and monumental presence. It is designed to balance on its own feet, a freestanding shape that supports its own weight. How Tobin achieved this, we can only imagine.
The root is an expression of nature’s nourishing force. Tobin has said, “For me, my worship is nature and I want to create on the grandest scale that I can.” The spider-like root is something of a specter, the manifestation of a once-living entity that lived underground, unseen by human eyes. At the same time, the bright red patina demands our attention and the root declares itself to be metaphor. Roots are much on our minds these days: the roots of injustice, the roots of inequality, the roots of social ills. When superficial fixes aren’t enough, we dig to the roots in order to make change.
William Valerio is the executive director of the Woodmere Art Museum.