Central Virginia’s rolling foothills are graced with a bounty of trees, so much so that the sheer volume of all of those oaks, poplars, maples, and pines as an ever-present backdrop may lead residents to overlook them entirely. Raising awareness of the existential value of trees, as well as of the damage caused by clear-cut logging and deforestation in other regions of the world, is the mission of sculptor and artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, born in Egypt but most recently hailing from New Zealand. He and his wife Adele visited Brownsville Elementary and WAHS to collaborate on an environmental art installation he calls The Blue Trees.
In The Blue Trees projects he’s done in almost a dozen locations around the world from Denver to Singapore, Dimopoulos uses a water-based pigment to change the color of the trunks and limbs of a set of trees to a vibrant blue, with the aim of raising their visibility. “We go up to around three-quarters of the tree with the pigment,” he said at the Brownsville event, “so it’s sort of an illusion of a blue tree, like all art is a representation. But still, it’s eye-catching.”
Eye-catching, indeed. The pigment is ultramarine, a deep blue color originally derived from lapis lazuli and not found naturally on trees anywhere. The color is non-toxic and will wear off of the tree bark after a period from a few months to a year or more, adding a life-like, ephemeral element to the installation. While it’s in place, Dimopoulos intends for it to engender an appreciation of one of our most precious resources, starting with encouraging people to “see” trees in ways they have not before.
“Trees have an intelligence,” said Dimopoulos. “I don’t mean knowledge, as in book knowledge, but an intelligence about how the world is. Long before people were here, they were using the sun to make energy.” He stresses the spiritual connection between trees and people as well. “Stand near a great redwood, as I have, and look up. You lean back more and more to see the top, and it’s as close to God as you can get. Trees actually breathe life into us.”
Dimopoulos, who dyed his silver hair blue for the event, mixes batches of the pigment for students to “paint” onto the tree limbs with brushes and rollers as he talks about the inspiration for The Blue Trees. “I became aware of the massive deforestation of southeast Asia and many other areas of the globe, and I wanted to do what I could as an artist make some kind of change.” The otherworldly blue on the trees is reminiscent of the whimsy of Dr. Seuss, and Dimopoulos finds some parallels. “Dr. Seuss wasn’t a scientist, he was an artist,” he said. “His book The Lorax [in which the title character defends the trees from clear-cutting] was the result of something that he saw that needed to be addressed.”
The Blue Trees project was chiefly organized by art teachers Shannon Horridge at Brownsville and Nancy Mehlich at WAHS as a collaboration, and several trees at the entrance to WAHS have been colored as well. The project was partially funded by a grant from the non-profit Arts in Western Education, which raises money to fund the Fine Arts programs (music, art and drama) in the western feeder district of Albemarle County.
Brownsville Principal Jason Crutchfield looks at the project more as art than advocacy. “I’m a big supporter of the arts,” he said. “Art is freedom, it’s creativity. To me, it’s about opening these kids’ minds as to what’s possible, even where things don’t look possible, like blue trees.” Crutchfield stresses the transformative nature of the hands-on experience. “Looking back in our lives, rarely do we remember how we acquired the content, but we sure can tell you about the experiences we had.”
Dimopoulos hopes the experience sticks with the students as well. “We do this project, and who knows what the kids will do with it in the future,” he said, smiling. “It’s up to them.” The hope is that, as the students contemplate The Blue Trees, a seed is planted.