2008-09 | two site-specific installations with: a dead dogwood tree, ferns, volunteer plant, soil, Virginia clay, water | Greater Reston Arts Center / Dogwood Elementary School woodland, Reston, VA, USA

curator: Joanne Bauer | supported by: Greater Reston Arts Center, Virginia Commission for the Arts, Arts Council of Fairfax County, Reston Association, Shady Lane Tree Movers, IPAR Initiative for Public Art Reston | special thanks: Jennifer Blum, Cheryl Freeman, Donna Garriety, Patricia Greenberg, Stefan Greene, Suzi Guardia, Erica Harrison, Adam Jenkins, Keith Kanzler, Linda Martin, Brian Murphy, Paul Priestley, Marco Rando, Howard Robinson, Katie Shaw, Sarah Tanguy, Claudia Thompson-Deahl, Andrea Tree, Dogwood Elementary School, GRACE Explore More Docents, residents of Governor’s Square, staff of Greater Reston Arts Center


A 25-foot dogwood rests prone on the gallery, a cone of clay supports its myriad roots. Gnarled branches and leaves, now stilled in death, once rustled in joyous abandon to the wind. In startling contrast, areas of green temper the dominant umbers and sienas. A hardy volunteer plant sprouts from the base, while baby ferns grow from channels along the trunk and branches, and mounds on the floor. Undulating its way to the ceiling, this miraculous meditation on the cycle of life forms a holistic link between heaven and earth.

From start to finish, the project took over two years, with Shinji Turner-Yamamoto teaming up with community volunteers, naturalists and other specialists. After the tree’s initial uprooting and replanting in a parking lot, it went on view at GRACE for five weeks. Then, leaving behind a swirling tracery of dirt, leaves, and twigs, it was moved to the grounds of nearby Dogwood Elementary School. Here the artist made another mound and painted the tree with a clay slip from the original soil to highlight the return to the starting point. A frequent shape in Turner-Yamamoto’s work, the mound is based on two he saw at a Shinto shrine in Kyoto where they served as vessels for spiritual power. In Sleeping Tree, the regeneration metaphor hinges on the shape. As both womb and tomb, the mound affirms the procreative potential of nature, complementing the birthing allusions of the channel system and the tree spade.

Turner-Yamamoto had his own rebirth as a child, when he escaped the urban asphalt of Osaka and encountered the forest and the sea for the first time. He began collecting fossils and other organic materials, later experimenting with them to create pigments. His interest in physical properties grew into an exploration of metaphoric potential. In his current practice, the use of handmade colors from indigenous materials acts as a portal into the landscape, letting him feel its rhythms, stratum by stratum, and record his emotional response. Sleeping Tree is the latest incarnation of the Global Tree Project, a series of site-specific installations that seek to renew connection to the natural world. While recalling tree-planting projects by Yoko Ono and Josef Beuys, Sleeping Tree relates more to the eco-pattern of old growth forests and emphasizes partnership over intervention.

It took years for Sleeping Tree to reach this state and in years to come, its spirit will live on as a nurse tree, at once completing and perpetuating the cycle. By isolating one tree in the artificial context of a gallery, Turner-Yamamoto adds intimacy to what is a continual occurrence in the forest. The impact of this wondrous act is undeniable. In shepherding the transformation, the artist awakened viewers of all ages to the simple truth: we too engage in the cycle of life. And as we draw comfort from this communion, we acknowledge our tacit complicity in violating the natural order and our shared responsibility of care giving. Back at Dogwood Elementary, the students address Sleeping Tree by its proper name. Grasping the project’s spirituality, they are inspired to create their own artworks. The message has indeed come full circle.

Sarah Tanguy is an independent curator and critic based in Washington, DC.
below - photography: Joanne Bauer


After two years of working on Sleeping Tree with Shinji Turner-Yamamoto, I thought I knew the work well but when I walked into the woods to see it covered in snow it took my breath away. Lying serenely on its side, supported by a mound, the tree was perfectly at ease like a beautiful woman in repose. It was only then did I recognize the full meaning of Turner-Yamamoto’s gift.

Sleeping Tree was much more than an exhibition. It was a public art experience involving community members from all walks of life who shared their own gifts with the artist and the Greater Reston Arts Center.

There were caring neighbors from Governor’s Square who saved the tree from a construction site, nurtured it, and agreed to give it up when it began dying. They followed the tree to the arts center and shared their knowledge of dogwoods with young schoolchildren who visited.

There were experts from Shady Lane Tree Movers who drove their giant tree spade three hours to dig up the tree and move it to a parking lot for the summer. They saw it as part of their job to promote good environmental stewardship.

There were arborists, heavy equipment operators, and people with shovels and strong backs from the Reston Association who worked as gracefully as a ballet company to move the tree into the gallery. Many of these workers returned to the exhibition with their stories about the relationship of trees and art in their own lives.

There was a local sculptor who showed up with his tools, his intimate knowledge of tree structure, and his willingness to work alongside the artist, enabling Turner-Yamamoto to manifest his vision. The sculptor said it was an honor to help.

There was a young filmmaker who documented the project, standing in the bitter cold while she filmed the artist creating the outdoor installation. Her profoundly sensitive film is set to music written specifically for the project by a composer friend.

There was a naturalist and a resource manager who taught the artist and the arts center which plants would thrive in the branches of a dead tree. Later they coordinated the entire tree removal and relocation effort, cajoling equipment and labor from folks who had never heard of installation art. There was the gallery staff that watered the artwork several times a day. The previous fall in another installation, they had successfully grown a large expanse of grass. A big tree planted with ferns was well within their expertise and when the ferns reproduced mid-way through the exhibition, they were jubilant.

There were teachers and children from the aptly named Dogwood Elementary School who used Sleeping Tree as the springboard for a year’s worth of lessons in science, poetry, and art. They warmly welcomed the tree for its second installation in their outdoor classroom at which point their teacher proclaimed, “My heart is singing”.

There were generous community organizations including the Arts Council of Fairfax County and Initiative for Public Art Reston who had knowledge of contemporary art and resources to support this ambitious undertaking. Their gifts were instrumental in helping the project achieve its potential while allowing hundreds of children the rare opportunity to see environmental art take form in their own backyard.

This long chain of gift giving began with Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s quiet resolve to see his vision of an up-rooted tree become an exhibition. Like the art he makes, Turner-Yamamoto inhabits the ethereal world between earth and sky but his work depends less on lofty imagination than on astute observation of the natural world. His installations, sculptures, and paintings illuminate the beauty of things overlooked - dead leaves that appear wind swept because they dried at the same angle, a tiny volunteer plant, a mound of dirt. These are humble things, which the artist transforms into gifts.

Great art is an act of selflessness and in Sleeping Tree Shinji Turner-Yamamoto achieves that stature by inviting both nature and the community to collaborate with him. When the tree appeared in the woods blanketed in snow, its branches reaching out to embrace the world, I saw how monumental and rare his gift truly is.