Man is Tree
Categories: art, landscape, nature

Sculptor, Joseph Wheelwright’s Theory of Evolution: ‘Man is Tree’

By:  Michelina Docimo

“A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human.” ~ Georges Rouault

Joseph Wheelwright, Pine Man (2006), 24' tall.

A dreary October afternoon, the pallid sky hidden under a stained glass tunnel of roadside, scarlet burning bush, mottled sassafras, and a canopy of golden honey locust teardrops; mystery is steeped in the air like fruit-infused vodka. Sculptor, Joseph Wheelwright’s Tree Figures at the Katonah Museum of Art, in Katona, NY have a similar effect—dizzying, somber, jovial and mischievous—a concoction of haunting hallucination and sobering truth: that tree and man share the same breath. In the spirit of Dr. Frankenstein, Wheelwright ‘gives birth’ to his sculptures by carving anthropomorphic features into trees, stones, bones, and other found-objects, collected while walking through woods.  He communes deeply with the essence of these forms until he hears a heartbeat, a perceived pulse that appears to then breathe fresh life into his art.

J. Wheelwright, Pine Man, detail

Pheremones of crushed dried white pine needles and freshly sawn wood sap waft under my nose, as I approach the largest of Wheelwright’s tree figures on exhibit on the front lawn.   A towering 27’ Christ-like figure, with arms out-stretched, appears to float on air.  The crest-fallen head reveals a face with deep, sad eyes, a pronounced nose and chin, and lips that speak the language of anguish. Atop the head, a crown of thorns is sculpted from a dense root ball, whose very features seem to lash wildly in the autumn wind.  The hips are concave, as though sagging under the strain of grief, and looking up into its face, I am overcome by a feeling of fear that the structure will stumble and fall.  Encircling the tree figure, tension from tip-to-toes pulsates from every angle of the work.

J. Wheelwright, Smoke Jumper, 2007, Bronze cast from hornbeam and fir trees 16-1/2x7x6 feet

Wheelwright was raised in the natural splendor of western Massachusetts’s Berkshires, a remote area known to harbor countless secrets and legends of New England’s old-growth forests. He expressed a fear of trees as a child, often clinging to the lower trunk to escape being snatched up by the clawing grasp of its branches.  After graduating from Yale University’s School of Fine Arts, Wheelwright moved to a commune in Vermont, using sticks and small stones as his medium—finally able to release himself from his childhood fears.  Surrounded by endless stands of trees, Wheelwright embraced his presentiment, converting it into creative curiosity and began to identify individual characters and personality traits in the natural forms around him.

Expressive movement is what he looks for, when walking through the forest selecting specimens for his sculptures: the appearance of a bended knee, a twisted torso, or swaying arms.  Once in the studio, he often turns the tree upside down, visualizing a newly- conceived anthropoid, where the intricate root system becomes the head, shoulder, armpits, and where, sometimes, fingers and the trunk can metamorphose into legs and body.  Wheelwright is not a purist, sometimes transplanting disparate parts, like grafting the ‘head’ of a hornbeam tree onto the ‘body’ of a cherry tree.  Instinctively, the artist knows whether a tree is male or female, engendering anatomically correct traits.  Lifting the bark, peeling layers, and adding tissue, Wheelwright is intimately familiar with how to create the feminine form.  Other figures are more androgynous, mythical, or centaur-like—each tilting to the side of eccentricity.

J. Wheelwright, Oracle, 2008, Pine tree, 26x14x7 feet.

In the courtyard behind the museum, I sense that I am not alone. My eyes drift up from the ground as I meet the gaze of another 30-foot figure, camouflaged against a weeping Norway spruce. Suddenly transfixed, I sense a connection with this man-made object that is surprisingly empathetic.  I am reminded of other creatures of science fiction-past, reclaimed from discarded and unwanted part and yet, assuming human emotions and drives.  Here, for a few moments, I sense a desire to communicate with this gargantuan creature, and I find myself listening, watching, connecting.

Sublimating scientific desires into artistic expression, sought out in the relationship between man and nature, is an age-old impulse. An important aspect of that desire to meld man and nature can be found in Wheelwright’s Tree Figures. His sculpture, exploring the biomorphic ‘evolution’ of man from trees, calls into question human superiority in the natural order of things, and promotes greater sensitivity for the fine genetic line that separates all living things.  “There’s no question that we are descended from the same organism,” Wheelwright says.  “Clearly they are our ancestors.  Human hope and design was inspired by trees.  The question is, when did we split apart?”

“Joseph Wheelwright: Tree Figures,” through May in the Marilyn M. Simpson Sculpture Garden and on the South Lawn at the Katonah Museum of Art, 134 Jay Street (Route 22). For more information: or (914) 232-9555.

Joseph Wheelwright’s Website:

by Michelina Docimo, CSBA, Contributing Writer

Photos by Michelina Docimo

Michelina Docimo is a certified sustainable building advisor and writer. Her focus is on sustainable or “green” architecture, landscape, design, and the representation of nature in art. Her writings have appeared in ARTESMagazine, Culture Catch, CT Green Scene, D’Art International, and other industry publications.

Visit her blog

This piece was written for ARTES Magazine and the original link can be viewed here:


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