A new tree in the Olin Courtyard is not your average tree. The ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' is a project by artist Sam Van Aken that is part artwork, part research and part conservation effort.
The ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' was a gift from the Roanoke College Board of Trustees honoring President Maxey's tenth anniversary and the 175th anniversary of the College. The gift recognizes one of Maxey's hobbies, fruit tree grafting, a process that involves taking a cut from a parent tree and physically placing it into rootstock.
The ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' will ultimately grow over 40 varieties of stone fruit including peaches, plums and cherries, blooming in the spring and bearing fruit in the summer. When it comes time to blossom, the tree will bloom in beautiful and extraordinary hues of pink and crimson.
The project has value that extends beyond its vibrant colors, as it creates a timeline of when these stone fruit varieties blossom in relation to each other, while also working to preserve certain heirloom stone fruit varieties that would otherwise be nonexistent.
To make the piece unique to the College, Van Aken will pull varieties of fruit from around the state. By the time the tree matures, in about seven to eight years, it will display a multitude of colors corresponding to the different fruit.
"Each ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' is different as they are all made specific to the site where they are located." Van Aken says. "Leading up to the project, I research the varieties historically grown in the area and identify local orchards where I can collect material to graft to the tree. For Roanoke I'm excited to learn about a new region of the country and [have] the opportunity to work with historical orchards in Virginia, including those at Monticello."
In addition to being a professional artist, Van Aken is an associate professor of sculpture at Syracuse University School of Art whose pieces have been featured nationally and internationally.
“I like to think that the ‘Tree of 40 Fruit’ symbolizes what is so special about attending a small, residential liberal arts college ... Students from all over the country - if not the world - come together to live and learn on this magnificent campus, and by the time they graduate, they have blossomed into one gorgeous student body.”
Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo '78, member of Board of Trustees
The idea for bringing a ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' to the college came from Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo '78, a member of the Roanoke College Board of Trustees, who was inspired by Van Aken's project when she first learned of it a number of years ago while sitting in a board meeting at Creative Time, a public arts non-profit organization located in New York City.
"I wanted to find an outdoor sculpture that would honor President Maxey and his inspired leadership, a sculpture that could be seen and appreciated by everyone on campus as well as the extended community in Salem - and even beyond," Cassullo said. "It was by complete coincidence that I learned that one of President Maxey's hobbies was grafting fruit trees, I just knew it was our destiny to bring a ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' to campus. It was just meant to be."
"It completely captured my imagination, and I felt it would be a great addition to Roanoke College's beautiful campus," Cassullo said. "Specifically, I loved that the artist, Sam Van Aken, was pushing the boundaries of what is considered "art" with this tree, and at the same time, conserving heritage stone fruit varieties and honoring a long tradition of fruit tree grafting."
Twice a year, Van Aken will visit campus to graft on site. The ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' arrived at the College with approximately 20 grafts already on it and will continue to be sculpted from grafts around the region, including stone fruit trees from Monticello and other Virginia orchards, in the months and years to come.
College alumni who have stone fruit on their property may also be able to contribute to the project by providing grafts if they are the right fit. Van Aken is already in touch with one alumna who has old cherry trees on her family's property in Virginia that he would like to use for Roanoke's ‘Tree of 40 Fruit.'
"I hope the ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' will spark the imaginations of everyone who views it. I like to think that the ‘Tree of 40 Fruit' symbolizes what is so special about attending a small, residential liberal arts college like Roanoke College," Cassullo said. "Students from all over the country - if not the world - come together to live and learn on this magnificent campus, and by the time they graduate, they have blossomed into one gorgeous student body."