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July 27, 2017

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Not being able to see the art in the forest for artificial trees

BALTIMORE -- Braking at the intersection of North Avenue and St. Paul Street, drivers breathe cigarette smoke out their windows, slosh takeout sodas, stare at their nails.

No one notices that a cluster of pointy trees has sprouted in the median. No one notices that a few of the trees aren't actually alive or even green, or that, despite the July heat, one is coated with a light dusting of snow.

These trees are art.

No one notices that, either.

Baltimore and public art have had a stormy relationship of late. In March, a golden fence around Mount Vernon Park drew so much criticism, the artist tearfully dismantled it almost immediately. Controversy last fall scuttled plans for a bronze monument honoring a former governor and mayor. People's hate for Penn Station's behemoth Male/Female sculpture has burned for years.

But New Jersey artist Justin Shull's artificial-tree forest, the piece he installed recently, might suffer a more insidious public art fate: indifference.

Shull, 26, knows that if no one sees his work, he's missed an opportunity. But what's an artist to do when subtlety — the very idea that someone might not notice something — is a key aspect of a piece?

"If artists worried about whether everyone would get it before they created anything, you probably wouldn't see much imaginative work out there," he said.

Shull's forest is one of about a dozen sculptures, from a pool of about 80, that the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts approved for the Baltimore Sculpture Project, which is part of Artscape, a public art festival.

Maren Hassinger, the director of Maryland Institute College of Art's Rinehart School of Graduate Sculpture who helped select this year's pieces, considers it a plus that people don't necessarily notice the piece right away.

"Maybe it's better that it's a secret thing you have to discover and then make up your mind about," she said. "Maybe once you notice it at the intersection, it will help you notice other things at other intersections — new benches, new street lights, new people. It gets your eyes going and thinking. We should notice what's around us."

As Shull and his friends install the sculpture, sweating heavily while they anchor fake trunks in unwilling median dirt and glue ornery branches into place, passers-by honk, a few even roll down their windows to ask what's going on.

But as soon as the artists walk away for lunch, leaving the freshly planted forest to speak for itself, the sculpture essentially disappears into the street scene — even the tree coated in synthetic snow gets no attention.

Shull's idea for the project grew from an interest in what he calls "the synthetic forms of nature we take for granted," things such as AstroTurf and cell phone towers that are designed to look like sweeping pines. He's fascinated by the idea that a fake tree and a real one could stand side by side, and people might not be able to tell the difference.

The artist built his Baltimore forest from trees salvaged from homes where they were no longer wanted.

He sought them out on Craigslist and by posting fliers in grocery stores and libraries. People, he said, were all too happy to part with what he calls "the lowest of the garage-sale lows."

A few dozen of the refugees stand in the North Avenue median, swaying stiffly in the hot breeze. Eventually, Shull would like to plant thousands more across the country.

When the exhibit ends, he swears he'll dismantle the trees with care and find every last one of them a good home — even if it's in his own backyard.

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