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Davis, California

Saturday, April 13, 2024

If Trees Could Talk

A whimsical, interactive art piece brings focus to environmental issues

Third-year studio art and psychology major Maxine Aiello turns campus trees into pieces of art through a project titled “If Trees Could Talk.” Aiello placed mirrors in tree hollows around campus, as well as dog-tags directly underneath to demonstrate personal responsibility in environmental degradation. Aiello transformed 14 trees last year for her sculpture class, Art 150 2A: Studio Projects. The project took a total of five weeks to complete. To alter each tree it took four hours.

Inspiration struck when she was working on a different project for Art 150 2A, which consisted of three smaller projects and one larger final. They weren’t necessarily meant to build on each other, but Aiello took them in that direction.

“My philosophy in the class is to have them dig deeply and find something that they care about,” said Robin Hill, an art studio professor in the UC Davis Department of Art and Art History. “And that they put their work into context that acknowledges not only contemporary art history, but the world around them.”

As Aiello worked on her smaller projects, she was inspired by “Alice In Wonderland.” Aiello saw a tree with a small opening at its base where the grass touches and thought it resembled the rabbit hole that Alice fell into. As a response, Aiello created small polyester clay woodland creatures and placed them at the bottom of a tree on campus.

“[It was] kind of my way of dealing with life’s anxieties,” Aiello said. “To shrink down and just go into this world that I made up that was basically the opposite of how it is now where everything is fantastic, and everyone respects the planet. Everyone respects each other, and we’re just sustainable and thriving.”

With this idea in mind, Aiello realized what she wanted to do for her next smaller project: put a mirror in a tree.

“I really just wanted to see people’s reaction to it,” Aiello said. “I was itching to watch people see it. I wanted to just post up 30 feet away and see who walked by. I was just excited. I think I knew once I put the first [mirror] in that it wasn’t going to be the end of it.”

While her final smaller project included placing a mirror in a tree, the first tree also had an impact on what would later become her larger project of fourteen trees. The first tree was Aiello’s take on a mini magical mirror, the dog tag containing the phrase “mirror mirror in the tree who can stop the third degree.”

“There’s this article [that argues that] by 2030 if we’re going along this path, we’re going to increase [the earth’s temperature by] three degrees which is detrimental to us and animals and basically everything,” Aiello said. “That was kind of the source of me really wanting to say something in my gigantic project. I thought it was just a really good opportunity for me to say what I want to say and make everybody hear me.”

With the idea of placing mirrors inside trees, Aiello developed the concept for her final project in the class. She combined her whimsical mindset with an environmental one.

“At this point, a lot of information had come out about how bad our climate is doing and  how scary it is that our planet is going down this path,” Aiello said. “I was just overwhelmed with the idea that we were kind of on this unstoppable path, and people weren’t really paying attention to it. So the messages I was adding to the trees ended up being my way to get people to think about the planet and think about what they’re doing, how they’re affecting it, what they can do and kind of finally take some personal responsibility for their role in our future. So each mirror has a different message engraved on a dog tag that’s just lightly nailed into the tree below the mirror.”

While the idea of bringing attention to the environment was Aiello’s motivation, others perceived it as a different type of artwork entirely. There exists a spectrum of reactions and interpretations to Aiello’s work.

“I feel [the art piece] tries to show that there’s so many people here,” said Kate Heller, a third-year economics and statistics double major. “If you look in the mirror, there’s so many different people that come to Davis. There’s going to be so many people passing by this tree and seeing themselves in the mirror. Davis is a very diverse place, and we all don’t look the same.”

In order to get the mirrors to fit inside the hollows, Aiello used butcher paper to estimate what shape the mirror would take. The butcher paper would then be used to outline cardboard. If the cardboard fit well inside the hole, Aiello cut out plexiglass using the cardboard as a guide. This created a problem for Aiello, and it was one of the most frustrating aspects of the process.

“The art building is in a weird corner of campus and some of these trees were far away from it,” Aiello said. “And it was starting to rain. Some days I was just out in the rain because that’s when I had the time to do it. I mean, I can’t not do it just because it’s raining outside, and there was just some points that just seemed like ‘I’m never going to get this mirror to fit, should I scrap this tree all together,’ ‘should I try and find another one?’”

But once the trees were finished, Aiello felt satisfied.

“I kind of get taken over by this person that just won’t stop until I’m satisfied and can be proud of whatever I made,” Aiello said. “So it’s hard, and there was times where I’m in the Art Building until like 4 a.m. engraving something, and I really want to leave, but there’s something else in me that won’t let me leave.”

This quarter, Aiello’s upcoming project falls in line with her environmental concerns. She will be using recycled milk cartons, a type of plastic that is nondegradable and stays on the planet years after it is produced, to produce her art.

Written By: Itzelth Gamboa — arts@theaggie.org


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