1 of 2
Chuck Wing, Chuck Wing, Deseret News
Artist Karl Momen stands by his creation along Interstate 80 in 2000.

SALT LAKE CITY — Since 1986, the "Tree of Utah" has stood as a lone sculpture in the western desert.

Swedish artist Karl Momen, who created it, now has plans for a visitors center at the towering sculpture along I-80.

Some find the man-made tree fascinating, others have used it for target practice over the years, but the world-famous artist who fell in love with Utah's desert 30 years ago, wants to make his artwork more accessible and has begun meeting with state officials to make that happen.

The 87-foot tall "tree" remains a mysterious statement standing on the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Momen became fascinated with what he calls the magnificent desert landscape driving to and from California 25 years ago. He designed a tree, signifying life in a place seemingly void of life.

"It is going to be an object of thinking," he said in a 1986 interview. "What is the motive?"

His design included rocks and minerals from Utah's desert, glued onto giant cement spheres. Contractor Don Ryman and his six sons took on the project.

It proved to be monumental back then. They crafted giant spheres — 225-tons of cement in all — that were eventually suspended 80 feet in the air with little support. And the sculpture had to withstand high desert winds.

Momen gave his tree to the state but there was never a pull-off or exit ramp along the westbound side of I-80, 95 miles west of Salt Lake. To protect the work from vandals, a metal fence surrounds it. Momen wants to give the area new life and has now designed a visitors center with an overlook, cafe, souvenir shop, restrooms and parking. He envisions something serene. "You sit there … and you don't have any interruption of traffic, buildings, anything, just plain desert.

"In the early morning, you can see the sunrise, and by the evening, you see the sunset. It is the best time to sit and enjoy and relax. I have been almost all over the world, never have seen anything like that because when you come at the right time, it is so beautiful."

He remembers his original reaction to terrain he says he didn't know existed.

"August,1981 and I didn't know anything about the desert. A walk, the crunch of the salt and I was so taken with the desert and then it didn't take me many minutes to think something must be done here," Momen recalls.

He says his sculpture remains internationally popular, largely because of the Internet. Between August and October, more than 1.2 million people saw the "tree" on Facebook and YouTube, he said.

Momen estimates the cost for the center will be between $1 million and $3 million. He says he has out-of-state donors, foundations in the Silicon Valley.

Momen said he has met with Division of Facilities Construction and Management director Gregg Buxton and attorney Alan Bachman. He plans to meet with representatives from Utah Department of Transportation and Office of Tourism. He says it will take 10 months to a year to acquire the licensing from all the state agencies before construction can begin.

Email: cmikita@desnews.com