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The Tree Whisperer

Dutch artist Floris Brasser whittles Whiteaker maple into sculpture

Wednesday, Sept. 11: Wood chips and sawdust fly helter skelter from the grinding teeth of a chainsaw as Dutch artist Floris Brasser stands perched atop the massive trunk of a tree in the courtyard of New Day Bakery. This is not a demolition job. It is not some Paul Bunyan act, though Brasser is something of a tree whisperer.

“I started peeling the thing,” Brasser says of getting started last week, when he inaugurated his monthlong project of turning the broad-leaf maple into a giant sculpture. “That’s always an initiating ritual for me, to get known with the tree, what’s really there. It’s going to be a dream catcher, a sky catcher, I don’t know. It will remain exciting until it’s there.” 

The tree trunk stands about 10 feet high, with a diameter of 6 feet or so; the five truncated limbs spread out and upward from the base, like a hand in the process of unclasping. Along with a chainsaw, which he runs on clean fuel and organic oil, the tools of Brasser’s trade include a bark peeler, a disk grinder with router bits, a chisel and a mallet.

An international artist who works almost exclusively with wood, Brasser has been commissioned to make a sculpture out of the maple that was limbed for safety reasons last summer. New Day owner Bill Mahoney first met Brasser in 1990, when the bakery was located down the street from its present location. When Mahoney traveled to Europe last January, he decided to look up Brasser in Amsterdam. They hadn’t seen each other, nor spoken, in 17 years.

Brasser drove Mahoney and his companions around Holland in his flatbed truck. “He comes from a neighborhood where there’s Rembrandt and Van Gogh,” Mahoney says of Brasser’s homeland. “That’s where he comes from. He’s always been an artist.” Mahoney showed Brasser some photos of the trimmed tree, urging him to come abroad and make art. “It took a while to really get serious about it, but we got serious,” Mahoney says. “We’ve had a discussion of what to do. It’s going to be something abstract, something that shows gratitude.”

For Brasser, public art is “an evocative way to confront the senses.” As our increasing urban density squeezes out free civic space, the role of art, Brasser suggests, is to become a sort of “mind balm for the people.”

Whether it is his 2003 Border Project in Belgium, which poses two unconnected ends of a bridge that do not actually span the gap of a river, or his current work in progress in Eugene, Brasser says he believes that public art should enliven and confront our sense of who we are and where we live. “We lose our senses with technology,” he explains, adding that “because it goes so gradually we accept it as normal. I don’t think it is normal. It’s tragic.”

Brasser says he doesn’t want to add more sculptures to museums; he wants his work to be a part of our lives, where we can see and even touch it. “That’s why I make art, to get people involved, to get them curious,” he explains. “For me, it’s a social act. It’s about dialogue. If it’s figurative, it’s clear what it is, but if it’s abstract you can project your own fantasy.”

Brasser will continue sculpting the maple through September, and he invites folks to come down, grab a coffee and some food at New Day and enjoy the show.

Find Brasser’s portfolio at florisbrasser.com

Photo by Trask Bedortha.