BYU landmark Tree of Wisdom sculpture torn down to be replaced

Published: Saturday, Nov. 5 2011 12:15 a.m. MDT

Workers demolish the landmark BYU campus sculpture called the Tree of Wisdom.

Marianne Holman, Deseret News

PROVO — Workers recently demolished a 20-ton BYU campus landmark, but the beloved and sometimes controversial Tree of Wisdom sculpture will return next year.

After 36 years of weather degradation and the wear and tear of students climbing on it and running through it, the sculpture outside the Spencer W. Kimball Tower will be replaced by a replica of the design. The replica will be built with stronger materials to outlast the effects of weathering and abuse.

"The art piece, being the first large abstract sculpture on campus, hopefully enhanced the student's process of seeing new things non-judgmentally and not discounting it as 'I don't understand it, so I see no value in it,'" said Frank Nackos, the artist who created the sculpture.

The university has been looking into repairing the statue for a few years.

"The timing was right," BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. "We had received approval at this time. The analyzing of the sculpture was complete. A thorough study had been completed and we were ready to move forward."

She said the replica is scheduled for completion by this spring.

Nackos's daughter, Alina Murdock was visiting campus with her sons four years ago and noticed how worn down it looked and contacted BYU to see how they could restore it.

"I think it's great because it's going to be the same sculpture but stronger materials," Murdock said. "But 36 years is a pretty good amount of time for it to last."

Nackos visualized the structure while he was a part-time faculty member and entered it into a competition open to all artists on campus.

He said he didn't think it would go very far in the competition because it was such an abstract piece, and he knew BYU's Board of Trustees would have the final say. "Being a sculptor, I have all sorts of ideas that go through my mind, but this concept of duality seemed to pop up in my mind one day, a design that rises up and branches out from one view and reverses, branching down like a root system from another view," Nackos said

The sculpture was completed in 1975 and was originally located north of the Harold B. Lee Library. In 1996, the $21,766 structure was uprooted to make room for the expansion of the library. Ten panels stand erect to compose the piece, with each panel weighing in at over two tons.

"The principle concept is it represents a root system going into the ground and drawing upon the nutrients of the earth representing the knowledge offered by the university and the other view showing it growing and blossoming out and becoming productive and serving others," Nackos said.

He said originally many students opposed the structure and arguments raged in the Daily Universe. Some wrote letters to the editor about how they hated it. Others appreciating its symbolism.

To the critics and haters, Nackos said he is just glad they were paying attention to the piece.

"I found it really great that people were noticing it," Nackos said. "It was quite a departure from everything else that had been put up."

Nackos referred to a student who asked if he had meant for the tree to be a Y for BYU, and he laughed to himself. The thought that some might interpret the sculpture as a Y never crossed his mind.

"They may look at it and say that's a really neat Y," Nackos said. "And that's OK if that's the only way they can see it. As time goes on, they can see more of the meaning behind it. They may see something else behind it that I don't see. Individual interpretation is the beauty of non-objective art."

As the daughter of an artist, Murdock has always appreciated the symbolism of the sculpture and said it has always been one of her favorites.

"As a little kid, I can remember running through it," Murdock said. "It's a fun sculpture where you can run through the spaces. I loved seeing it on the cover of different magazines how they light it up different ways."

Jenkins said BYU leaders recognized the sculpture is important to the student body and alumni. She gave assurances the piece will be back for them to enjoy all the same.

"It's an important icon to both our present students and our past students," Jenkins said. "It's something people show their children when they return to the university."

Murdock said she wants future BYU students to be able to appreciate the sculpture the way she did and said the interactivity of the sculpture is what makes it truly great.

"It's a legacy that we're proud of as his children," Murdock said. "That's why I was really interested in having that one cared for. He (sculpted) it for people to enjoy and interpret in their own way."

EMAIL: sgambles@desnews.com

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