At first glace, the yard of Richard Reames looks no different than that of his neighbors. Until one notices the trees. Two saplings swirling around each other. A trunk turned into the shape of a peace sign. An apple tree that spells “LOVE.”
Reames has spent decades growing trees into living works of art at his home in Williams, Oregon. “There’s no doubt it’s a slow art,” Reames says. “A lot of this process is a give-and-take. You say something. The tree says something back.”
He makes shapes that are practical – chairs, walls, houses – as well as ones that are more fanciful. A stand of trees down the slope from his house would be normal, were it not for the loop each shoot takes on its way up.
There are similar types of art. Bonsai miniaturizes trees. Topiary uses the foliage to shape an object. But Reames carefully bends and shapes the living trunk and branches.
Although he says he coined the term “arborsculpture,” he was not the first to do it. Reames was inspired by a roadside tourist attraction from his childhood, a place called the Tree Circus near Santa Cruz, California. It was the brainchild of Axel Erlandson, whose work still stands at the Gilroy Gardens family amusement park. “I don’t think I barely noticed the trees when I was little,” Reames says. “It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I recalled Erlandson’s trees. I’d read about them and got inspired to try to grow some trees.”
Reames has tried many different experiments with trees. There’s “the tree that waters itself” with a spigot coming out of the trunk. Having successfully grown chairs, he tried to grow a boat. “There’s no telling whether a piece is going to work out or not in the long run,” he says.
He has exhibited his work at fairs and floral shows and accepted private commissions. He’s written a book on the history of the art, as well as one on how to grow a chair, aptly titled “How to Grow a Chair.”
Reames says he doesn’t know how long he will keep at it. “It sure seems like I could continue it for the rest of my life. It’s gentle work, and it’s really fulfilling.”