A ward-winning contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken grew up on a family farm in Reading, Pennsylvania, but he spent his college years and much of his early career focused on art rather than agriculture. While Van Aken says that his work has always been "inspired by nature and our relationship to nature," it wasn't until recently that the artist's farming background became such a clear and significant influence, first in 2008 when he grafted vegetables together to create strange plants for his Eden exhibition, and then shortly after that when he started to work on the hybridized fruit trees that would become the Tree of 40 Fruit.
Each tree begins as a slightly odd-looking specimen resembling some kind of science experiment, and for much of the year, looks like just any other tree. In spring, the trees bloom to reveal an incredibly striking and thought-provoking example of what can happen when nature inspires art. Then, over the course of several months, Van Aken's trees produce an incredible harvest of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and almonds, including many you've likely never seen before.
Thus far, Van Aken has created and placed 16 trees in museums, community centers, and private art collections around the country, including in Newton, Massachusetts; Pound Ridge, New York; Short Hills, New Jersey; Bentonville, Arkansas; and San Jose, California. Using a unique process he calls "sculpture through grafting," Van Aken creates trees that grow and support more than 40 varieties of stone fruit, including many heirloom, antique, and native varieties.
On the heels of Van Aken's TEDxManhattan talk, we spoke with him about the Tree of 40 Fruit, how he developed and executed the concept, his plans for the future, and what happens to all that fruit.
Epicurious: What is the Tree of 40 Fruit and what inspired the project?
Sam Van Aken: At the time this project began I was doing a series of radio hoaxes where I hijacked commercial radio station frequencies and played my own commercials and songs. In addition to becoming acquainted with FCC regulations I also discovered that the term "hoax" comes from "hocus pocus," which in turn comes from the Latin "hoc est enim corpus miem," meaning "this is my body" and it's what the Catholic priest says over the bread during [the] Eucharist, transforming it into the body of Christ. This process is known as transubstantiation and [it] led me to wonder how I could transubstantiate a thing. How could the appearance of a thing remain the same while the reality changed? And so, I transubstantiated a fruit tree. Through the majority of the year it is a normal-looking fruit tree until spring when it blossoms in different tones [of] pink, white, and crimson, and late in summer it bears [more than] 40 different types of fruit.
Epi: What is the goal of the Tree of 40 Fruit and what do you hope to communicate?
SVA: First and foremost I see the tree as an artwork. Like the hoaxes I was doing, I want the tree to interrupt and transform the everyday. When the tree unexpectedly blossoms in different colors, or you see these different types of fruit hanging from its branches, it not only changes the way you look at it, but it changes the way you perceive [things] in general.
As the project evolved, it took on more goals. In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing. I saw this as an opportunity to, in some way, preserve these varieties. In addition to maintaining these varieties in my nursery, I graft them to the Tree of 40 Fruit. Additionally, when I place a Tree of 40 Fruit, I go to local farmers and growers to collect stone fruit varieties and graft them to the trees. In this way they become an archive of the agricultural history of where they are located as well as a means to preserve antique and native varieties.
Epi: You've described your artistic process as "sculpting by way of grafting." Could you explain what that means?
SVA: I currently work with over 250 varieties of stone fruit and developed a timeline of when they blossom in relationship to each other. By grafting these different varieties onto the tree in a certain order I can essentially sculpt how the tree is to blossom.
Epi: Why did you choose to work with stone fruits?
SVA: Stone fruits have [a] greater diversity among the species, and are the most inter-compatible. Although it gets tricky when you start to graft cherries, for the most part one can easily graft between plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and even almonds.
Epi: Where and how did you acquire all the different fruit varieties?
SVA: My primary source for most of these varieties was the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. When I began the project there was an orchard at the Experiment Station with hundreds of different plum and apricot varieties. They planned to tear this orchard out, so I picked up the lease until I could graft all of these varieties onto the trees in my nursery.
Epi: How long does it take to create one of your trees?
SVA: Depending on when the tree is planted it takes about five years to develop each tree and graft 40 varieties to it.
Epi: Do you continue to work on the trees after they're planted?
SVA: After the tree has been planted, I visit it twice a year, in the spring to prune and [in] late summer to graft, for three years, until the tree is established.
Epi: What happens to all the fruit from your trees?
SVA: Until I discovered garlic and peppermint repellents, they were a huge hit with the local deer, but fortunately we've resolved that. I've been told by people that have [a tree] at their home that it provides the perfect amount and perfect variety of fruit. So rather than having one variety that produces more than you know what to do with, it provides good amounts of each of the 40 varieties. Since all of these fruit ripen at different times, from July through October, you also aren't inundated.
Personally, I give away most of the fruit that comes from my trees. For people who aren't aware of farming and growing, the diversity of these varieties and their characteristic tastes are surprising and they ultimately begin to question why there are only a few types of plums, one type of apricot, and a handful of peach varieties at their local market.
Epi: Each of your trees has the capacity to grow more than 40 different varieties of stone fruits. Can you explain the significance of the number 40?
SVA: The number 40 has been used throughout Western religion to represent a number beyond counting. [Being] interested in this idea of a bounty of fruit coming from one tree, 40 seemed appropriate.
Epi: Do you have any plans for the future of this project?
SVA: I would like to continue to place these trees throughout the country preserving these heirloom, antique, and native fruit varieties. Wherever I place them there is a sense of wonderment that they create through their blossoms, the different fruit, and the process by which they are created.
Eventually, I would like to create a grove or small orchard of these trees in an urban setting. I have always stayed away from artwork that educates people, but to some extent these works in addition to being beautiful and producing fruit cause one to reconsider the possibilities with food and fruit production.