Spotlight: Shifting Roots, The Gregg Tree Project

courtesy Gregg Museum of Art and Design

by Jessie Ammons

Wise people know that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. The Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State knows that when a massive building renovation forces you to fell a pair of beloved oak trees, you make art from the remains.

The university museum tapped Raleigh sculptor Ann Cowperthwaite to create a bench from the trunk of a 9,000-pound oak tree that had to come down to make way for the new Gregg. The museum’s new home is taking shape on the site – and within many of the walls – of the former chancellor’s residence on Hillsborough Street. It’s a move that has been in the works since 2010 and under construction since summer 2015, and will result in a stately space almost twice as big as the museum’s former location in the Talley Student Union.

Because of what Gregg Director Roger Manley calls a “very mature landscape” on the site – “the hedges were so high and dense that supposedly people who worked right across Hillsborough Street from the lot had no idea there was a building beyond all those shrubs,” he says – a handful of large trees planted in the ’30s had to be cut. “There was some sense of upset,” Manley says, “and we resolved to try to do something with a couple of them, if possible.” The museum put out a request for proposals for an installation that would be “somehow useful,” Manley says, while also honoring “the place, the trees, and enhancing the museum’s works of art.”

Among the proposals was Ann Cowperthwaite’s organic design that transforms half of a tree trunk into a bench, with a 12-foot-tall column at one end emblazoned with the prose of poem Widening Circles by Rainer Maria Rilke. Cowperthwaite and her husband own Eidolon Designs, where they work on craft-based architecture projects and furniture design. Her background is in sculpture, and she says she’s long been inspired by “the kinship of the human form, human nature, and the forms of nature, particularly trees.” She says it was a natural fit to submit a proposal to the Gregg. Her design is admittedly “huge.” It retains the tree trunk’s dimensions “so as to call to mind its original grandeur,” a costly undertaking beyond the scope of the Gregg’s proposed budget. Because of its cost, all involved were surprised when it was selected.

With the museum’s support, the artist herself has taken it upon herself to raise funds for its completion, a $40,000-plus endeavor that curators, administrators, and artists alike say is a necessary labor of love.

“It’s is an unprecedented way to go about getting a piece of public art up,” says Cowperthwaite. “This is about … reminding the community to pay attention to regrowth and repurposing, and to pay attention to art.”

With such a massive undertaking, she knew she needed allies. Local design studio Arrowhead offered to collaborate with Eidolon, beginning a snowball effect as support grew for what’s been dubbed “the Gregg Tree Project.”

“Had it been just me, I might not have stuck with this,” Cowperthwaite says. “It’s been a group effort, I can’t say that loudly enough. This is about people, all of whom have been in Raleigh a long time, who are excited about the growth and development of the Gregg and of the city, and who all want to be a part of creative energy.”

If all goes according to plan, the project’s fundraising goal will be met by May and the artists will spend three months building it. “Every time the log is moved or turned or lifted, it has to be hoisted mechanically,” Cowperthwaite says. Manley hopes to have the piece in place just prior to the museum’s grand re-opening, which is (very) tentatively set for late August. “Like any outdoor wooden object, I don’t expect it to last forever,” Manley says. “But if those trees can serve a purpose for a while, then I feel like the project will have achieved what we hoped it would.”

His sentiment echoes the artist’s. “Nothing lasts forever, and this tree trunk has already been cut,” Cowperthwaite says. “It’s already laying down and there’s already been decay. But there can be new life in it for a period of time that only nature will determine. I do think this is a purposeful piece. It will be a testament to the Gregg, and their wanting to salvage something that they had not expected to come down.”

If the team exceeds their fundraising goal, all extra proceeds will go back to the Gregg. “This is for anybody who loves art, or who’s committed to N.C. State, or bringing awareness to environmental issues,” Cowperthwaite says. “This is for anybody who wants a vibrant community. It’s also for people who just want a place to sit outside the museum.”

To learn more and to support the Gregg Tree Project, visit