‘Regrowth’ Dancing Tree Sculpture to Help Bring Climate Awareness to the Great Northern Festival

Climate change can be a tricky subject to broach. Do you focus on the science and risk triggering despair and resignation? Or do you talk about solutions and risk glossing over the enormity of the problem?

With his latest sculpture, Regrowth, artist Aaron Dysart tries a different approach altogether. He draws in his audience with humor and delight, and then slyly invites them to ponder the meaning of resilience in a rapidly changing world.

Lighted tree sculpture at a festival.
Aaron Dysart’s sculpture, “Regrowth,” uses an animated tree limb similar in construction to the dancing “tube men” often seen at car dealerships and other retail storefronts.

Designed as a signature artwork for The Great Northern, the Twin Cities’ one-of-a-kind winter festival (Jan. 25–Feb. 5, 2023), Regrowth presents an image that is at once tragic and hopeful: a barren tree stump, with a lone sprout reaching upward from where a mature tree once stood. It’s an image that Dysart has played with before at various times throughout his career — one he sees as a metaphor for loss and hope.

“I’ve always felt it as kind of a hopeful icon that acknowledges the trauma and loss of the past, and doesn’t cover it up, but yet reaches for a more hopeful future,” Dysart said.

To the image of the stump and the sprout, Dysart has added a new, humorous element: a 15-foot-tall, animated inflatable tree limb, of a construction similar to the “air dancers” or “tube men” commonly used for advertising car dealerships to passing motorists.

This dancing tree, which Dysart describes as “cheesy but beautiful,” serves as a hook to grab viewers’ attention by presenting something familiar and festive in a new way. Dysart said he likes to incorporate imagery and language present in popular culture as a way to help open viewers’ minds to fresh ideas.

“Using language that is in popular culture but to talk about something that matters, like the intersection of climate change and tree canopy, I think it makes the art itself a bit more accessible,” he said. “I think if you start with humor, people are much more willing to have a true conversation and to rethink things.”

Bringing Awareness to Climate Change and the Urban Tree Canopy

The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO) and Green Minneapolis partnered to commission Regrowth as an art installation for The Great Northern. Now in its seventh year, the festival comprises 10 days of winter activities, music, food and drink, art, and ideas. The big idea is climate change, with festival organizers promising “keynote conversations, live podcasts, film screenings and other thought-provoking formats” on the topic.

The urban tree canopy plays a critical role in mitigating the impacts of climate change on cities. A healthy tree canopy helps reduce the urban heat island effect, which occurs when cities’ dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other hard surfaces absorb and retain heat. This literally makes cities hotter, which in turn exacerbates a host of related health and environmental issues.

The MWMO and Green Minneapolis hope Regrowth will serve as a vehicle to raise awareness of the role trees play in adapting to and mitigating climate change — along with the multitude of other benefits trees provide, such as managing stormwater runoff, filtering air pollutants, lowering energy bills, and providing habitat.

“Green Minneapolis is focused on expanding the urban tree canopy, and Regrowth brings light to the challenges we face in urban forest management, such as climate change, invasive species, continued development, and an overall lack of funding,” said Michaela Neu, director of programs and operations for Green Minneapolis.

Artist Aaron Dysart stands in the Mississippi River next to a staff gauge.
This portrait of Aaron Dysart, taken from his website, shows the artist standing next to one of the MWMO’s staff gauges in the Mississippi River. (Photo by Crystal Liepa)

Dysart’s work frequently touches on environmental themes. In 2016, the MWMO hosted Watershed, his ice sculpture project, in which he utilized MWMO bathymetric data to create 3D castings of the Mississippi River’s bottom made from frozen river water. The following year, he lit up the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock with Surface, a light show designed using several decades of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data.

For Dysart, after a string of projects involving many collaborators and finding creative ways to interpret reams of real-world data, Regrowth allowed him an opportunity to get back to basics — building and sculpting.

“I’m a person who thinks with his hands, and that notion of hands and working with materiality helps me think through things,” he said.

The installation consists of an artificial tree stump made from bio-solids based composites. A nylon “tree” protrudes from the stump, animated by a blower fan concealed in the stump’s hollow body. A light attached to the blower illuminates the tree as it moves.

Dysart has used these air dancers in previous art projects, and said he finds them amusing in a way that sparks genuine joy. He recalls his initial reaction when a blower fan he purchased to do some experiments accidentally came with the full setup, including the nylon dancing figure.

“I’ve never been so giddy in my life,” he said. “I literally ran out and hooked it up, and I was just really happy. It’s corny, but it makes me smile.”

He hopes visitors to The Great Northern will have a similar reaction upon seeing his new sculpture for the first time.

Regrowth will be on display at Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis through the end of February.

Aaron Dysart in his studio.
Aaron Dysart in his studio, working on “Regrowth” in December 2022.

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