Glorious Site of Tremendous Importance

Josh Pazda

Some time in 2012, Tony Feher ate a handful of dried dates that he bought at the grocery store. He saved the seeds and planted them in a pot on the windowsill of his apartment on 2nd street near Avenue A in lower Manhattan. The fact that he saved the seeds for another use should come as no surprise from an artist who saved nearly everything, and whose thirty-year career as a sculptor was principally founded upon making something out of nothing. His favored working materials were the stuff of everyday life, including glass jars, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, marbles, and among other things, apparently date seeds. In the weeks and months that followed, Feher carefully tended to the seedling and cultivated a healthy young palm tree. As time passed, the tree outgrew its place on the windowsill, and before too long, Feher began to worry that the tree would not receive sufficient sunlight in his small New York apartment. Concerned about the future vitality of the tree, he called me and Hiram Butler and asked if we would plant the tree in the garden of our gallery on Blossom Street in Houston.1 We happily obliged, and one day a tall cylindrical cardboard tube arrived at the door. Scrawled on the outside of the tube in black magic marker were the words "I'm a Tree."

bearded man with palm treeFig. 1. Tony Feher with the palm he grew from seeds on his windowsill, 2015.

Over the next year Tony was sure to check in often about the status of his dear palm, and ended many emails with a gentle nudge: "How's the palm tree? If it's not yet planted please water it for me. And spin the pot 180 degrees so it won't grow crooked." (April 24, 2013) "PS what's up with the palm?" (May 7, 2013) "PS: please water my palm tree. There's no reason it should not be in good condition." (May 2, 2014) "You better make sure my palm is well watered" (June 19, 2014).

Since 2011, Feher had been spending a considerable amount of time in Houston, and planted yet another seed for what would become a proposal for a large-scale horticultural sculpture at the University of Houston.2 Perhaps sparked by his excitement about the palm grown on his windowsill, Feher would draw on his career-long interest in using horticultural material towards sculptural ends, and conceived of a work that was comprised of a variety of palm trees. A short battle with cancer prematurely took Feher's life at the age of 60, and the project never fully came to fruition. However, Feher executed numerous drawings, digital renderings, and a handmade three-dimensional maquette that manifest the artist's conception of what might have been. While this work was not ultimately realized in sculptural form, its imaginative potential and conceptual framing is made concrete through drawing.

Feher’s interest in expanding the language of sculpture to include horticultural material began in the mid-1980s, and is made evident in several of his earliest drawings. Two of these drawings describe a work to be integrated into the landscape, presumably a Hudson River waterfront near the south end of Manhattan. In these drawings, Feher describes an irregular mound in the landscape, overgrown with a wide variety of cattails, reeds, and other aquatic plants, set against what appear to be elements of the New York Skyline. Feher annotated the image with simple directions: “Plant a few...Hudson River species. Let other plants blow in” (Fig. 2). Feher’s circular mound is shown with dimensional notations: “6 - 8 feet is adequate to start, 10 feet is ambitious, 25 feet is huge.” It can be difficult to grasp the totality of Feher’s project beyond the basic information made available through these schematic drawings. However, they contain several key considerations about horticultural sculpture that he would continue to develop over three decades. These include: creating sculpture that is both made in the landscape and made of the landscape, employing plant material that is native to the site in which it is planted, and utilizing a variety of plants that display diverse formal characteristics.

Sketch and notes in penFig. 2. Tony Feher, Untitled, circa 1986, ink on lined paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of the Estate of Tony Feher.

Despite his long-term fascination with these subjects, Feher completed just one large scale installation of this type in his lifetime. Commissioned for the lawn of a courthouse in Rockford Illinois, Feher created a work called Super Special Happy Place, 2011, which consists of more than one hundred crabapple trees of five varieties (Fig. 3). As a result of the success of the Rockford installation, The University of Houston System curator of public art, Michael Guidry, commissioned Feher to submit a proposal for a horticultural sculpture at UH in 2014.3 In consideration of what plant material might thrive in Houston, Feher took a keen interest in palm trees, which had captured his imagination from his Texas upbringing.4 Feher set out to identify a selection of palm species that displayed a variety of formal characteristics, and remained hearty in Houston's climate. After consulting with a Houston-based arborist, Jack Swayze, and conducting his own research, he ultimately decided on the varieties of Washingtonia, Texas Sabal, Canary Island date, Pindo, and Sago palm trees.

courthouse lawn dotted with trees
Fig. 3. Tony Feher, Super Special Happy Place, 2011, United States District Court - Northern District of Illinois, Rockford, Illinois.

The site that Feher chose for his proposal was an elliptical lawn that punctuates the end of University Drive, which was built as the main entrance to the university campus from the east (Fig. 4). Both the procession of the long driveway and its elliptical terminus convey an understated elegance and grandeur that culminate in the Cullen Performance Hall—a building in the art deco style from 1950. The site embodies an implicit welcome declaration that announces, "you have arrived." And indeed, a recently-erected Welcome Center sited halfway along University Drive now explicitly designates the area as such. However, after decades of construction, expansion, and campus reorientation, the elliptical lawn at the end of University Drive no longer functions as the stately entrance it once was. Rather than declaring the point of arrival, the lawn has become a bald island from which most students now perambulate, but rarely cross. Feher recognized this tension of former and current functions and in homage decided to title his proposed sculpture Glorious Site of Tremendous Importance. He hoped that by planting a grove of palm trees as sculpture, the public would traverse the boundaries of the driveway and occupy the island as a site of contemplation, discovery, and play.

Feher's interest in positioning nature-as-object in the public arena places his work in conversation with artists such as Meg Webster and Robert Irwin. Further developing tenets laid out by practitioners of minimalist sculpture and land art, each of these artists have made use of horticultural material as a basis for sculpture, which necessarily engenders a responsibility towards caring for the earth. On the subject of Meg Webster's work, one writer has similarly remarked that the artist's "use of living organisms that grow and die underscores...the need to care for things and to accept rhythms that are not easy to alter; the dependence on biodiversity, and the weakness shown by humanity in a situation that it claims should be changed." 5 Feher's proposal for a University campus seems particularly primed towards these considerations. Meant to be seen in time and various stages of growth and decay, the work's placement at UH would have guaranteed that it was seen by a consistent body of students, professors, and university employees, among others. It is likely that this audience would have recognized that the work embodied a significantly different appearance in the amount of time a typical undergraduate student spends at the University from freshman orientation to graduation day. But beyond understanding the work in formal and experiential terms, Feher hoped that the installation would enter the consciousness of the university public as a site that was celebrated and cared for as a living entity.

A discussion of this project must hover between the poles of what exist and what might have been. That is to say that Feher's conception for Glorious Site of Tremendous Importance can be thought of in terms of horticultural material and the environment, but its physical manifestation must also be recognized as a form of autographic drawing—which occupies a unique and previously unexplored territory in Feher's oeuvre. Throughout his career, Feher took to drawing as a primary vehicle to give visual representation to his ideas and imagination. While drawing was a crucial component of Feher's working methods, his drawings were never exhibited in his lifetime, and consequently virtually none of the literature on his work makes reference to drawing.6 In an archive of nearly one thousand drawings, now in the collection of the Hammer Museum, Feher's ideas about horticultural sculpture are represented among both his earliest and latest drawings. In addition to providing visual access to a number of Feher's projects that were not fully realized, these works establish a through-line in his working methods that represent several of his core concerns as an artist.

overhead shot of campus
Fig. 4. Tony Feher, digital rendering over site plan, 2015. 

In thinking through how he might arrange the palm trees at UH, Feher began by exploring the composition in a rectangular grid formation, like an ancient hypostyle hall. One can imagine the tall, slender trunk of a palm, and the flourishes of the fronds functioning quite like a Corinthian column. Undoubtedly, the language of architecture is never far from Feher's work. In addition to arranging objects in columns, rows, rings, and spirals, stacking objects and grid formations were fundamental to his visual language. While he was not an academic architectural historian, he took a number of architecture courses as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, which sparked an interest that he would continue to develop throughout his life. Despite his early compositional notations for UH that refer to Classical architecture, Feher ultimately decided on a more natural arrangement, in which each of the various palm species did not visually align on an X and Y axis. He wrote: "Thinking now of using all four varieties...planted in a more naturalistic form. Different heights, textures and colors making a palm fantasy island. More ambulatory in a rambling way than the grid." 7

Fig. 5. Tony Feher, Untitled, 2014, marker and highlighter on paper.

To visualize his "palm galaxy," as he casually referred to it, Feher made conceptual drawings that frame the scope of the work as well as presentation drawings that describe the project in more fully developed visual detail. The conceptual drawings are in keeping with Feher's most typical drawing style, which convey the most direct information about the trees and their configuration. Feher's contour line drawings emphasize the variety of shapes and sizes of each tree's trunk and canopy, and are most often shown in elevation or three-quarter bird's eye views. One emblematic conceptual drawing shows the five varieties of palms in colorcoding: red Washingtonias, turquoise Sables, blue Pindos, yellow Canary Island date, and orange Sagos (Fig. 5). Rather than naturalistically rendering each type of palm, Feher utilized color and line to convey the variety of scales, textures, and their irregular distribution on the elliptical lawn. Feher consistently reiterated this color-coding of trees in a number of other drawings. However, one representation stands out uniquely in that Feher added a single pink colored demarcation to the center of the site plan. This was a placeholder for the palm that Feher grew from seeds on his windowsill, and hoped to include as the heart of his palm grove.

As much as he relied on autographic drawing in his creative process, Feher's sensibility was incredibly tactile, and whenever possible, he preferred to also work with three-dimensional material that he could manipulate according to his intuition. In order to think through a project of this magnitude, he constructed a handmade maquette that could be flexible in representing his diverse conceptions about what the work ought to be. For a work of this kind, it would not be unusual to contract an architect or designer to fabricate digital renderings that spatially convey the arrangement of trees in comparison to the scale of the architecture of the site and its immediate surroundings. However, in keeping with his modest material sensibility, Feher insisted on hand-drawing and constructing a maquette out of paper, cardboard, and other various everyday materials such as chopsticks, paper towels, and coins. Working in this manner gave Feher the ability to manipulate objects as he would any sculptural material in his studio—even if the scale was incorrect, or reflected an abstraction of what would ultimately be realized in the space. Demonstrating his ambivalence towards exact scale representations, Feher cheekily used Kachina figures from his collection to give scale reference to the palms (Fig. 6). 

paper palm tree and figurines
Fig. 6. Tony Feher, a palm tree from Feher's UH maquette, and Kachina figures from his personal collection.

Feher's model is a completely autographic and idiosyncratic representation of what he was proposing (Fig. 7). For the representation of university buildings in the model, he covered cardboard boxes with white paper towels and drew windows and doors in black marker (the texture of the paper towels remains prominently recognizable). The canopy of each of the trees was depicted by planar paper cutouts, and their chopstick tree trunks were secured with modeling clay to bases made of quarters. The elliptical expanse of the lawn is described by a single sheet of green construction paper. Patchy black marker scrawlings describe the asphalt driveway surrounding all sides of the lawn. Feher was considering several sources of ground cover, such as lantana and blue plumbago, which are represented by small circles of cut tissue paper that are speckled with colored dots. In the model, the scale and coloration of these elements resembles small candy wrappers. Given the handmade qualities of these elements, Feher's model blends the autographic nature of his drawings into the three-dimensional form of his sculptures.

3D model of palm treesFig. 7. Tony Feher, Maquette for Glorious Site of Tremendous Importance, 2015, mixed media.

Feher used this model and a number of drawings in his formal proposal and presentation to the UH Systemwide Public Art Committee. While they were inclined to move forward, it is perhaps not surprising that they requested that digital renderings be provided that more accurately described the project before doing so. To Feher's initial dismay, he contracted fabrication for digital renderings of his proposal from two architects (Fig. 8).8 The creation of these renderings functioned much like a second set of conceptual drawings and would ultimately help shape his vision of the project. While the renderings still convey an abstraction in that each of the palm species are not accurately represented, they nonetheless clearly describe the spatial distribution of palms, and it is evident that their individual sizes, shapes, and textures would have been discernible in a realized artwork.

digital model of palms on campus
Fig. 8. Tony Feher, digital rendering for Glorious Site of Tremendous Importance, 2015, by Edgar Villanueva.

The proposal for UH was being continually developed at the time of Feher's premature passing in June 2016. Before he understood the seriousness of his illness, two factors had caused the project to be put on hold indefinitely. Firstly, the site for which he had chosen and proposed his installation was deemed unavailable or inappropriate by the university, which would require him to reconsider his proposal for an alternate site—certainly not a small task for a site-determined installation. Secondly, a number of palm species that Feher proposed to work with were afflicted by a range of diseases, referred to generally as Texas palm decline. Tony's concerns about these issues, as well as the infrequent (but threatening) deep freezes that Houston endures, raise interesting questions about ecology and conservation, if an artist elects to work with natural materials. The winter freeze of January 2018 is a case in point, as enormous amounts of vegetation were wiped out all over Houston. Tony's palm in our garden (now twenty feet tall) began to show stress signals as the feathers of many of the fronds turned brown. Thankfully, it has survived. Feher privately vocalized his hesitations about the ethics of pursuing a project that was susceptible to an environmental failure, and even began to consider an alternative plan wherein the palms were replaced with wooden telephone poles painted in bright colors (Fig. 9). 9 Despite his hesitations, it was clear that he hoped to work with plant material in a gesture of life affirming optimism, which underlies so much of his work. Feher reminds us: "Life is vulnerable, not fragile. Life perseveres. It has a tenacious grip. My art may appear fragile, but it holds on." 10

Fig. 9. Tony Feher, Maquette for Glorious Site of Tremendous Importance, 2015, mixed media.

One of the great lasting lessons of Feher's work is due to the opportunity in which he allows us to see the world differently. Numerous writers have noted about Feher's work as such: the brilliant color of a plastic bottle cap, the twinkling light on the rim of a glass jar, and the magnificent shape of an unfolded cardboard box are all re-doubled with enormous potential and majestic beauty once we are shown a change in perception. Even more profoundly perhaps, in his later life, Feher was able to extend this lesson to trees—the most ubiquitous object of all. Any tree is certainly capable of capturing one's attention, but they may just as easily go unnoticed with the many distractions of daily life. Feher’s art has always been about calling attention to the otherwise unnoticed things that surround us every day. To refer back to his proposal’s tongue-in-cheek title: indeed, through Feher’s sight, things take on a glorious and tremendous importance. As a result, we are reminded that once we are sensitive enough to see something, then we are equipped to care about it. Though Feher’s horticultural sculpture for UH was never fully realized, his many drawings, renderings and maquette for the project give life to his creative vision, from which a similar attentiveness can arise. On your way home you may notice the glorious erect golden cone of a Sago palm in your neighbor’s yard. And the sagging brown fronds encircling the trunk of a Washingtonia may look more like the beard of a Babylonian king than a tree trimmer’s inattentiveness. The feathers and fans of palm fronds all over the city and the dried dates at the grocery store will all declare in their exceptional ordinariness: “I’m a tree.”

1 Hiram Butler and I represented Feher at Hiram Butler Gallery, and exhibited his work from 2002 through his death in June 2016.

2 Claudia Schmuckli organized his twenty-five year survey at the Blaffer Museum in 2012, in January 2013, Diverseworks mounted his installation Free Fall, and he mounted installations and exhibitions at Hiram Butler Gallery in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Houston was home to many of Feher's friends, and he visited often.

3 Guidry's invitation for a proposal was not insistent on the inclusion of horticultural material per se, but it was very much of interest to both Feher and Guidry and had been discussed over many months before the proposal was developed.

4 Feher grew up in Corpus Christi and attended the University of Texas for his undergradate studies.

5 Anna Bernardini and Angela Vettese, Meg Webster Opere-Works 1982-2015 (Milan: Silvana Editorale, 2015), p 23.

6 The text and illustrations reproduced in this essay are among the very first to enter the public discourse on the subject of Feher's drawings.

7 Tony Feher, email message to the author, 2 December, 2014.

8 The architects Edgar Villanueva (3Dit Studio) and Hans Tursack each made renderings for the proposal.

9 Feher explored an interation of this idea in a finished sculpture titled The Nothing Before Something at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in 2013.

10 Amada Cruz, Bill Arning, John Lindell, and Adam D. Weinberg, Tony Feher: Red Room and More... (New York, Bard College, 2001), p. 62.