For Artist John Grade, Growth Over Time

"This piece helps us see history as something alive, evolving, and current. And it’s messy. It’s not one thing. It’s layering, it’s multiple vantages, it’s two things at once.”
Artist John Grade in front of “Murmur: Arctic Realities.” Joe Michael/Mystic Seaport photo.

John Grade likes to think in extremes.

His sculptures, for example, are massive. They don’t weigh just pounds, they weigh tons. They can be hundreds of feet long, or tall. They can made from wood salvaged from a 115-year-old schooner, or harvested from a long-dead forest in southeastern Alaska. They can be created to last forever, or to be eaten by termites.

And so it makes sense that Grade, who lives in Seattle, would eventually find his way to Alaska. Three years ago he was invited by Anchorage Museum to join its Polar Lab program, an immersion-type residency that would bring an international variety of artists to Alaska to be educated and inspired and then to create. His initial idea (again, extreme) was to find the northern-most tree in the U.S. It was to go along with the oldest tree (4,000 years old and atop an 11,000-foot mountain in Nevada) and the most banal (a hemlock in the Cascade range in Washington state).

After doing research and talking to Inuit hunters, he narrowed down the location. He and his wife Maria were dropped by a plane in Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve. They rafted about 100 miles down the Noatak River, and then hiked to find the tree. And there it was. The old Inuit hunter had told him “There will be a tree where it shouldn’t be” and that was, in fact, the case. The 18-foot tall poplar was easy to spot because, Grade notes, nothing on the tundra grows taller than about a couple feet.

There was also, as the hunter warned there could be, a grizzly bear at the tree, using it as a scratching post. They had to wait about 24 hours before that bear had every itch scratched, and left the area. When they got closer, Grade saw that the bark of the tree was coated in beautiful, thick, cinnamon-colored bear fur.

Once they were bear free, Grade laid plastic all around the base of the trunk, and then covered the tree in tin foil so he could make a plaster mold of it. When the mold was hardened, he broke it into pieces that would fit in the raft, and brought it home to create the third piece of his oldest-most northern- most banal tree concept. That project is still ongoing in his Seattle studio, one of 12 pieces he is working on simultaneously.

What’s that? A pingo.

While they were trekking to the tree, Grade said he noticed these large earthen mounds randomly poking up across the

John Grade on “his” pingo in Alaska.

tundra. “I was curious,” Grade said. “They were pingos (pingo means “small hill” in Inuvialuktun). I wanted to learn more about them. They are so old, and so slow growing, and outside of the Inuit people, few people know about them.”

Pingos occur where the ground remains frozen for years at a time, in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. There are two types — an open-system pingo occurs when artesian water pushes up near the surface and freezes into an ice lens that forces the topsoil upward as it continues to grow. A closed-system pingo occurs when a former lakebed or dry river channel refreezes and develops a pressurized ice lens that pushes on the tundra. Most pingos along the lower Noatak River are closed-system pingos. Over centuries, pingos may grow as large as 2,000 feet across and 180 feet tall.

“I knew I wanted to work with a pingo very directly,” Grade says. “I wanted to marry what I studied empirically with what I experienced personally. They are two very different things.”

He found a pair of scientists who are inventorying pingos, and they shared aerial photos of hundreds of them with him. There was one particular pingo in this inventory that Grade was particularly drawn to, and he made it the background photo for his computer monitor so he could look at it often.

Then back he went to Noatak Preserve, this time by helicopter, which allowed him to spend time over various pingos, getting a deep “bird’s eye view” of each one, and its relationship to the landscape around it. He mapped the area using photogrammetry, which is the science of making measurements from photographs, especially for recovering the exact positions of surface points. Grade’s goal was to determine which pingo he found most compelling, to use as the basis for his sculpture.

He discovered later, back in Seattle, that the one he chose was the same one that served as his computer desktop photo. He liked this pingo because it was “a little off kilter at the top. It spoke to me. Is it growing? Is it collapsing? Is it somewhere in between? Sometimes they have foliage on them but this one was relatively bare. It was compelling.”

The pingo, from memory

As soon as he was back in the studio, Grade re-created the pingo from memory. He wanted to be able to combine his personal recollection of the area with the categorical information he had from his photogrammetry. “I didn’t want to make a piece of science,” he said. “It’s historic, it’s a barometer of time, it’s a measurement of this landscape in time. But it’s more than that. It’s so slow. I wanted to juxtapose that with a murmuration of birds, which is so fleeting. That was an ‘a ha’ moment for me. In the Arctic there are these strange topographical shifts, the tussocks, the bog. You can really only see these differences from a bird’s perspective.”

“Murmur: Arctic Realities” by John Grade. Andy Price/Mystic Seaport photo

And so Murmur: Arctic Realities began to take shape in his mind, and in his studio. He assembled a team of 20 who worked straight through for five months to make a deadline for the debut exhibition at Mystic Seaport. It involves carved Alaskan yellow cedar, fabricated steel, computer assisted design, computer programming to make it move, hydraulics and pneumatics and an air compressor to give it life.

And he knew it would be big, although the sculpted pingo is about half the size of the real life pingo, which rose about 30 feet from the tundra floor and was about 100 feet long. “I want people to feel something viscerally,” he said of his broader work, and “Murmur” specifically. “When it’s bigger, it’s on its own terms. It’s not a metaphor. This piece helps us see history as something alive, evolving, and current. And it’s messy. It’s not one thing. It’s layering, it’s multiple vantages, it’s two things at once.”

The team he assembled to move the piece from concept to reality was just as layered. “There are so many threads of expertise in this project,” Grade said. “I’m there sitting with the structural engineer and the metal fabrication people, talking about the design and how it can all work together. The biggest distinction between my work now and my work when I started is that 20 years ago I worked in complete solitude and now I am surrounded by a social dynamic. Now I would say it’s half solitary and half a total social immersion. But the key to me is, all these people and all these special skills, they bring their ideas and their input and it makes the project that much richer.”