Creating the Tree of
Spectacle Triumph has been a journey from start to finish. Just like life creating the sculpture wasn’t easy by any means. Creating this beautiful tree tested my patience, stamina and will. I jumped through hoops and didn’t let roadblocks prevent me from pushing forward. That’s the message in my story is to persevere regardless of what is thrown at you.
This journey started last fall when I entered my rose sculpture in ArtPrize, an international art competition in Grand Rapids, MI. When registration started for ArtPrize I debated entering due to the registration fee. I kept getting messages that doors would open. The messages started off as a whisper but eventually turned into a roar. I really feel my Mom was behind the messages. Even after I registered I kept getting the same message. A month after ArtPrize ended I received an email about a possible commission for an eyewear manufacturer in New York using eyewear material in the piece.
When thinking about a proposal I thought about what I wanted to create. At first I struggled. Then I thought about this tree I first started to create over ten years ago. It started off as an oil painting where half the tree was alive and the other half was dead. It represented the best parts of ourselves and the pain that we endure. The living part was the phoenix that rose from the ashes. It’s taken me many years to realize that I’m not my pain or troubles. The Tree of Triumph is my best, true self.
The inspiration for the original tree was a lilac bush that grew next to my family home. It was my pride and joy. In the spring the sweet fragrance would float throughout my home. I loved that lilac bush. Next to the lilac bush was an old corncrib. One day my father decided he was going to tear the corncrib down. Not only did he tear it down he set it ablaze. The flame was so hot that it bubbled the paint on the siding of the house. You could feel the heat inside the house. The flames were higher than our house.
Once the flames had dissipated all that was left of the lilac bush was a charred out skeleton of what use to be a beautiful, vibrant living creature. I was devastated. My father on the other hand acted like it wasn’t a big deal. It was just a bush to him, not important. He just brushed off my tears like it was nothing.
I thought all was lost. Spring wasn’t the same without those purple, fragrant blooms. The blackened skeleton was a reminder of the hurt my father caused. What I couldn’t see were the roots deep within the ground. Years later they arose from the ashes and life had sprouted again. It took some time but eventually the lilac bush grew to four times the size of its former self. It took a big portion of my adult life to realize the moral of the story.
You can destroy my branches. You can knock me to the ground but you’ll never reach my roots. The roots represented my heart, soul and spirit. It was the first time I regained the power that I allowed others to take. No amount of hurt or pain will reach my soul. So it’s significant that the heart of the tree is surrounded by the roots.
I submitted my proposal and patiently waited for an answer. The date given passed and still no word. I had started to think I wasn’t selected. Another few weeks went by and finally I received word that I was one of seven artists selected. I was beyond ecstatic. My sculpture was going to be displayed during an art show in New York City. It was a dream come true. It’s one of the best things to ever happen to me.
Creating a sculpture using unconventional materials is a complicated, challenging process. It was my first sculpture of this size. The final sculpture was over four feet tall and four feet long. The next six months pushed me to my limit and tested my will. Creating the bark was a very tedious process of hot gluing small piece of frame onto the skeleton which was pvc. This wasn’t your typical glue gun. It was a professional glue gun that carpenters use with temperatures going past 400 degrees. Due to the intricate aspect of the branches, the quick harden time of the glue and the small frame pieces I had to use my hands to attach the pieces. So you probably can guess what occurred fairly frequently. I’m surprised I still have feelings in my hands.
Creating sculptures out of unconventional materials is very physically demanding and the tree was no different. There were times that my hands, arms and legs were covered in burns, scratches and cuts. It looked like I had been a fight with a cat and lost. Towards the end I had so many cuts on my hand that it became very painful to use my hands but I pushed through. Reaching through the branches felt like I was reaching through a briar patch.
There were aspects to the tree that were very tedious. Creating the bark was a very lengthy process. At times it felt like I was never finish it. Imagine gluing small pieces of frame to a large area. It was so tedious that it gave me panic attacks. Creating the leaves were also very tedious process due to the number of lenses needed to fill the space. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take over 3,000 lenses. Most of these were treated and hand painted. I then had to hang each one to the branches and that part took forever.
Creating the Tree of Triumph meant bringing my inner demons into the light. The tree represented my best self and the darkness was ruthless in trying to stop me. There were times I couldn’t even look at the sculpture because there were parts of me that still believed that I didn’t deserved it. I faced the darkness and once again pushed through.
The tough part of creating a sculpture out of unconventional material is that for a big portion of the time creating it there isn’t a clear defined picture of what the final picture will be. It’s not until the end that you start to see the picture. It wasn’t until I started to add the leaves that I was finally able to see what I had envisioned. It’s amazing how quickly the final picture comes to the surface. It’s like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
The art that I create is very time consuming. I like to create little biodomes. My specialty is creating creatures out of the unconventional materials. A part of the design included a little girl swinging from the tree which was based off my seven year old niece. I also included one of the creatures (the frog) from my rose sculpture. It was my way to honor where the tree came from. If it wasn’t for the rose I wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity.
The creation of the tree was a family event. My nieces and nephew helped me paint lenses. My seven year old niece was quite the helper. She would come down frequently asking if I needed any help. My sister was my sounding board. Many of the decisions like not painting the bark came from her. My brother in law was my technical expert and made sure the sculpture was secure during the long trip in a Uhaul to NYC. I couldn’t have created the sculpture without their help so it was really important to make them a part of tree. I had them each sign a lense and put it on the tree. It was my way of honoring their contributions and support. While they couldn’t be there with me in NYC they were definitely there in spirit.
During this whole experience I have felt a strong connection to my Mom to the point where I would turn around thinking she was there. She was one of the person I turned to as a sounding board and I found myself physically turning to her thinking she was there. I strongly believed she brought me this opportunity.
I thought that challenging aspect was done but boy was I ever wrong. Originally it was my understanding that the sculpture would be crated. With over 3,000 lenses the sculpture was extremely heavy, at least over 200 pounds. The shipper just wanted to bubble wrap it and cover it with a furniture pad, and throw it on the truck.
I had spent the past six months (over 1500 hours) in creating this beautiful creature and I wasn’t about to let it get broken. I put my heart and soul into this tree. It had became a part of me because the tree represented me. I became a part of this tree and it a part of me. When I had the idea of driving it to New York City it never dawned on me how rough of a ride a Uhaul moving van is. Thankfully my brother in law came up with a system that would keep the sculpture secure in the back of the Uhaul. He attached it to a pallet and then boxed it in between the wheel wells. Finally he secured it by attaching a 2×4 to each side.
The trip was only suppose to take 10.5 hours. The client wanted it at their location at 5pm. I made sure to leave enough time for stops, etc. I had tried to fall asleep the night before but with the nerves and excitement I wasn’t able to. So I left for NYC with only 4 hours of sleep in 48 hours. I left at 4am. About 5 hours into my trip I started to become very sleepy to the point where I struggled to keep my eyes open. I did everything possible to stay awake including blaring the music and turning the air on full blast. Anyone who’s driven on highway 80 through Pennsylvania knows that the terrain is very hilly and rough. Imagine driving on it when you’re majorly sleep deprived. On top of all the hills there are many drop offs. It got to the point where I couldn’t even look at them as they made me seasick.
Around the fifth hour I was pulled over by a cop. He said I had went over the white line and wanted to make sure I was okay. He ended up being really cool but it just added to the nerves of the trip. Anyone who has ever driven a Uhaul knows it’s like driving a boat.
I had downed a red bull, a Starbucks cold drink and several Mountain Dews in the hopes that it would keep me awake. About into the seventh hour I went into this sleep deprived state where I felt like everything around me was warped. It was like I was on this major trip. It felt like the mountains were coming at me both in fast forward and slow motion all at once.
Towards to what I thought was the end of the trip I started to count down the hours. I counted down the hours to help comfort me. The last two hours I started to become so tired I wasn’t sure I could make it but I knew they were expecting me and I couldn’t let them down. So I continued to push through.
Eye of the Tiger came on the radio and it helped give me the steam needed to finish the trip. I finally got to New Jersey during rush hour mind you. At this point I was so tired that I was wired. I continued to count down the time until Manhatten came into sight.
Finally I could see the city. I wasn’t ever so happy to see a city landscape. It was around 5pm when I drove into the city limits, so you can imagine how crazy it was. The traffic went from a slow pace to a crawl. I was stuck in a traffic jam. I was only 15 minutes away from my destination and only one mile from my next exit which was the Lincoln tunnel. What I didn’t know that there was an accident up ahead.
It took over ten minutes to move .05 of a mile, if that. Anyone that’s driven in a major city knows that traffic jams are inevitable. About an hour into the traffic jam I started to lose hope in getting to my destination in a timely matter. I had already missed my time to drop off the sculpture. At this point I just wanted to get to the dinner that evening with all the artists but as the time crept by I realized there was no way I was going to make it. All of a sudden I hear this bang. Someone rear ended me. I was like great how can this day get any worse. Thankfully there was no damage to the Uhaul and the only damage to his vehicle was to his license plate which was bent in half on the ground. How does one hit a huge moving truck with the brake lights on and stopped???
Finally after four hours in the traffic jam I was back on track. At this point I thought the plan was for me to go to the hotel and drop off the sculpture in the morning but when I contacted the client I was told that it needed to be delivered tonight. I was told if it wasn’t delivered tonight it wouldn’t be in the show. The next thirty minutes I pretty much circled time square over and over in a Uhaul. I was starting to panic. Imagine driving a huge truck at 11pm at night in Time Square. I was sure I was going to hit something or someone. There were people all over. They crossed the streets in mobs like ants out of a ant hill. Eventually I said heck with it and started driving like a mad man.
I finally made it. I should have known the night wasn’t going to get any easier. Earlier I had a bad feeling. There was one point during the traffic jam where I almost turned around to head home. When I opened the back of the truck the first thing said was it’s not going to fit. I could also tell they really didn’t want to have to move the sculpture. I have always been upfront with them on the size and weight.
We get the sculpture into the main lobby and I’m dumbfounded when I see the elevator. The door was extremely narrow. I honestly never saw an elevator so small. There was some discussion about getting the sculpture into the elevator. Someone suggested leaving it in the lobby. I wish I had pushed for that. I was informed that they learned the day before that the freight elevator was broken.
My sculpture was at least four feet tall and four feet across. The elevator door couldn’t been bigger than three feet across. I suggested angling the sculpture into the elevator. They got the sculpture in the elevator but getting it out was another story. I couldn’t watch them try to get it out. I honestly was done with the whole situation so I sat in the conference room knowing something bad was going to happen. Never in my worst nightmare did I imagine what I would walk into…
Every branch was broken and lying at the base of the sculpture. They had tried to fix it by shoving branches into the wrong holes. They basically decapitated the tree. It was like they dropped it from the top of the building. I was in complete shock. In just a matter of minutes they had destroyed something that took 1500 hours to complete. Until you see the pictures of the demolished piece you can’t begin to understand how badly it was broken. In a sculpture that size a strong foundation and structure is crucial in securing the piece. Individually plastic lenses don’t weigh that much but when you use thousands of them they become very heavy.
On top of them destroying something I put my heart and soul into I wasn’t treated very well. One of the employees started to take his frustrations out on me, accusing me of lying about being stuck in the traffic jam. I was dumbfounded by the whole situation. If I wasn’t so out of it and delirious I would have never let them put it in that small elevator. After spending over twenty hours in a Uhaul my night ended with them doing the worst thing you can do to an artist. I was told that they could fix it. I didn’t have a lot of faith. We agreed to come back the next day which was the day of the event.
I didn’t get checked into my hotel until 1am. Thankfully my good friend lives in New York City and came over to my hotel. I don’t think anyone would have questioned if I did have a meltdown but I was surprisingly calm. I obviously was upset but I didn’t let it destroy me. Prior to my Mom passing away I would have totally turned into Chicken Little. I posted on Facebook that the breaking of my sculpture didn’t even make my top ten list of bad things that had happened to me. When my friend left I had accepted that my sculpture was destroyed. I had come to terms with the fact that I was going to show a broken piece.
After I had dropped the Uhaul off in the Bronx I headed to the office. I wasn’t sure what I was going to walk into. I had four hours to salvage my piece. The event started at 7pm. Thankfully one of the employees was experienced with construction and offered to help me put it back together. I had used pvc to build the structure. When they broke the piece they not only broke apart the branches they broke the connecting pieces. So you couldn’t just connect pieces anymore because there was big chunks missing.
Thankfully I had packed my glue gun and brought a lot of supplies just in case. If I hadn’t brought my glue gun I’m not sure we could have put it back together because we used the glue to connect the pieces together. After a few hours he was able to rebuild the structure the best he could. There were still three main branches that we couldn’t put back together which left a lot of holes. I had put a lot of effort in creating the shape of the tree.
When I finished the sculpture I was relieved to be done. I had very little energy left in me. I felt accomplished for finishing it but I was also relieved to not have to work on it again. So once again I was forced to give more than I had and rebuild something that took countless hours to create. I got on the floor and began to work my magic which again meant burning myself with that boiling hot glue.
I worked on the sculpture until the very last minute. I did what I could to rebuild it. Most everything on the sculpture had something wrong with it. The wire butterflies were bent out of shape. The iris was broken, so was the dragonfly and girl. Thankfully the damages to the creatures were minor and I was able to fix them.
We had done the impossible and was able to put back together the broken pieces. The salvaged sculpture was a lot more rough and exposed than before. The shape of the tree was also drastically altered. I was relieved to have a finished piece to show. There wasn’t anything else I could do.
The event was amazing. I met so many wonderful people, many who had no idea that earlier that day it was a broken mess. I wove the whole experience into the theme of the piece. It’s not coincidental that of all the pieces that were broken the roots weren’t touched. I was able to weave what happened into the story of the piece which many of the guests at the event were able to connect to. I talked to many people who themselves also had moments in their life when they felt broken. Without the sculpture breaking I’m not sure the impact would have been as strong.
It was very symbolic that the sculpture was broken. The theme of the piece is resiliency, rising above the difficult times in our lives. There have been times in my life that I have felt just like that broken sculpture. When something traumatic happens we are forced to pick up the broken pieces.
While I wouldn’t want to relive this experience ever again there is a part of me that is glad that it happened. It was a major confidence boost. I could have given up. I could have thrown a fit. I could have went home with my tail between my legs but I didn’t. I pushed forward and didn’t let anyone stand in my way of getting what I wanted and deserved. There have been many times I have cowered down in defeat. This wasn’t one of those moments. This was my moment of triumph.
Like the tree I was strong. Stronger than anything that ever happened to me. You can cut my branches. You can cut my bark. You can even knock me to the ground. You’ll never reach my roots and I will always rise from the ashes.
I’m not alone. There are so many people out in the world who themselves feel broken. After my Mom died I wasn’t sure I could go on. It felt so broken that I didn’t believe I could be put back together. That’s why my sculpture breaking wasn’t really a big deal because I had already gone through something a million times worse. This was nothing. It was also out of my control. I couldn’t bring my Mom back, neither could I undo my sculpture breaking.
The sculpture breaking just added to the depth of the piece. It multiplied the strength of the piece exponentially. The Tree of Triumph is confirmation that the impossible is possible. We are never truly broken as our soul always remains in tact. No power or force will ever reach that. So say what you want to me, it won’t hurt or affect me.
So many people have been apart of this journey. This has been the best part of this experience. I have received so much love and support it’s lifted me up from depression and my troubles. It has proved that I deserve so much more. Losing sight of your dreams makes for a very dreary world. This journey has proved that our dreams can come true. Just keep moving forward. Even at a snail’s pace you’ll reach your destination. Our trials and tribulations make us into who we are today. I wouldn’t have been able to handle this journey if I walked down an easy road.
Check out my new artist website: http://www.derekstephens.net