East Villager Roderick Romero on the deck of the tree house he’s building at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo by Sarah Ferguson
BY SARAH FERGUSON | Hurricane Sandy laid waste to more than 10,000 trees across New York City — “like a chainsaw on methamphetamines” was how The New York Times put it. But one East Village artist is putting a lyrical twist on Mother Nature’s wanton destruction. Renowned tree house architect Roderick Romero is using wood from trees felled at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to create a whimsical, nest-like platform that kids and adults can “inhabit.”
“It’s like a bird’s nest observatory onto the Botanic,” says Romero of the 200-square-foot structure, which he’s dubbed “Sandy Remix”
“It’s a collage really,” explains Romero, who has lived on Avenue C since 2001. “I’m using wood from 14 different tree species” — including pin oak, elm, cedar, maple, walnut, ironwood, Caucasian wingnut (yes, that’s an actual species) and 200-year-old persimmon, from a stand of persimmon trees that came down in Hurricane Irene.
“So it’s like a song I’m remixing, a song about trees and wood,” explains Romero, who moonlights as lead singer and lyricist of the Seattle-based band Sky Cries Mary.
The wooden planks and stumps used in the frame and stairs were milled on site by John Duvall, a sawyer from Upstate New York who reached out to the Botanic Garden after Sandy.
“He just did it out of passion for wood,” says Romero. “He understands that all this really amazing wood usually goes to mulch. So he just jumped on it, thank God.”
Around the structure’s frame, Romero is weaving the nest with saplings of persimmon and wingnut, along with willow branches “repurposed” from a nearby environmental installation by sculptor Patrick Dougherty, which is being taking down.
Assisting Romero in the construction are Ian Weedman, another tree house builder from Portland, Oregon, and East Village carpenter John Wagner. (Full disclosure: John is my partner and the father of my son.)
“This is by far the greatest work I’ve ever done,” says Romero. “It’s my quintessential piece.”
That’s saying a lot, considering that Romero has built 53 other tree houses and sculptures around the world, including commissions for Sting, Laurie Anderson, Val Kilmer, Julianne Moore and Hollywood film director Darren Aronofsky.
He built his first tree house in 1997 “as a whim” for a “Mexican surrealist, Gnostic artist” in Olympia, Washington.
“Then my brother in Seattle saw pictures and said, Hey, I need one of those,” Romero explains. Then Sharon Gannon, the founder of Jivamukti yoga studio and a close friend from Seattle, introduced Romero to Sting and his wife, who hired him to create a tree house on their estate in Tuscany, Italy.
Romero also built a tree house with street kids in Tangiers, financed with donations from Sting, Donna Karan and Russell Simmons.
“You gotta go with the flow,” shrugs Romero, when asked about the fairy tale trajectory of his career. When his wife got into graduate school in New York, he took leave from his band and moved to the Lower East Side in September 2001 — arriving seven days before 9/11.
“I had all these commissions for museum installations, and then 9/11 happened and that all dried up, and so I was like, What the hell am I doing here?”
Now an East Village father (his daughter was born here in 2005) and active community gardener, he built a tree nest at the base of a big willow tree at El Jardin del Paraíso on E. Fourth St.
That piece drew the attention of Kathryn Glass, vice president of marketing and public engagement at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, who also used to live in the East Village.
“When we lost all these trees in Hurricane Sandy, I was thinking about ways we could reuse the wood, and immediately thought of Roderick and the work he did on Fourth St.,” explains Glass.
To get the gig, Romero beat out more than 30 other artists submitting proposals for the B.B.G.’s next environmental installation.
“I’m the only one who pitched using only wood from Sandy.”
Sited next to a sprawling Caucasian wingnut tree and overlooking “Bluebell Wood,” the tree deck sits 5 feet aboveground, allowing visitors a “fresh perspective” on the Botanic Garden, says Glass.
Although the grand opening isn’t until April 6, the tree deck has already drawn much notice from visitors, especially children, who seem magically drawn to the work.
In fact, from March 26 to April 2, the Botanic Garden is planning a series of free drop-in workshops for families, where kids can watch Romero at work and try their hand at weaving a nest, while learning about the different structures that animals build.
“My hope is that it will give people a new perspective on nature,” says Romero, “and on the art of wood.”