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‘Why are the trees wearing tutus? That’s the question.’ This Cary art is turning heads.

California artist Helen Lessick created “Arbor Anime,” a project for Cary, by hand-sewing tutus for eight trees around Academy Street downtown, an eye-catching installation she hopes will provoke conversation. “Why are the trees wearing tutus?” she asked. “That’s the question.”
California artist Helen Lessick created “Arbor Anime,” a project for Cary, by hand-sewing tutus for eight trees around Academy Street downtown, an eye-catching installation she hopes will provoke conversation. “Why are the trees wearing tutus?” she asked. “That’s the question.” jshaffer@newsobserver.com

In downtown Cary, the newest public art project turns curious heads along Academy Street, where the trees stand dressed as ballerinas, their trunks wrapped in pleated polyester tutus.

This eye-catching display, which graces eight oaks and pines between the Cary Arts Center and Town Hall, is the brainchild of California “artist explorer” Helen Lessick, who hopes to spark lively discussion downtown.

She previously has painted the pipes of a Culver City, Calif., wastewater plant in bright primary colors and dangled a braid of yellow, Rapunzel-inspired hair from a bell tower in Northern Ireland.

“For me, art is a conversation and public art is a public conversation,” Lessick said in a phone conversation Tuesday. “Why are the trees wearing tutus? That’s the question.”

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A tree outside the Cary public library on South Academy Street sports a fanciful tutu, part of an art installation by Los Angeles artist Helen Lessick. Josh Shaffer jshaffer@newsobserver.com

Lessick may seem an unlikely pairing for Cary, a town famous for its outdoor sign restrictions that make even a McDonald’s appear understated.

But Lessick’s piece, entitled “Arbor Anime,” is one component of a six-sculpture installation in Cary’s refurbished downtown.

“It’s whimsical,” said Lyman Collins, Cary’s cultural arts manager, commenting Tuesday on Lessick’s tutu art. “It makes people smile and scratch their heads. It speaks to a sense of discovery, which is something we’re trying to engender in downtown Cary. Where else are you going to find tutus on trees?”

The $16,000 installation also features a sculpture that resembles a rusted sea mine on the Arts Center lawn. When a passer-by sticks a hand inside of its metallic innards, a music box plays a lullaby — an addition as peculiar as tutus on trees.

Lessick, in Los Angeles, responded to Cary’s nationwide query seeking art that celebrates music and dance. She had already finished a similar installation at an Oregon community college.

“I saw the trees moving,” she said. “To me, it looked like something I wanted to see as a dance. You can sit in the park and see them swaying.”

Once selected, Lessick set about sewing the fabric on burlap hoops. Then with a town arborist, she picked the right trees and custom-fit tutus to their wooden thighs.

“The (town) manager came out just to make sure we weren’t harming the trees,” she said.

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Tutus hang 20 feet high for Helen Lessick’s art installation in downtown Cary required a team of tree scalers to hang properly. Josh Shaffer jshaffer@newsobserver.com

Some, such as the tutu outside the public library, hung low enough to install with a ladder. But getting tutus 40 feet up a pair of loblolly pines that stand just outside Downtown Park required a pair of tree scalers.

The town is a partner on the project with Cary Visual Art, a private nonprofit. Some of the new art, such as park benches shaped like dulcimers and violins, are permanent. But others, such as the weather-damage-prone tutus, are slated to stay only until fall of 2019.

“The tutus are probably a little more ephemeral,” Collins said. “They’ve been up three months through the rain and look pretty good. But we don’t want the trees to be embarrassed.”

After all, they’re not wearing tights.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08

Snap a selfie

Prizes will be awarded for the best self-portrait taken with the tutu trees. Post them to Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #TOC or #CaryAsap.

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