Artist Michael Marras grows tree from intuition mixed with Rust Belt junk
by M. Sophie Hamad
Since December, Hazel Tree Interiors had what appeared to be a metal tree trunk growing through its exterior wall. Rumors circulated of branches to come. And one day they did.
That tree trunk was part of the Akron Tree Project. The artist behind the project, Michael Marras graduated from Full Sail University with a degree in Computer Animation. He then worked in the computer animation program within the Fine Arts department at Full Sail for three years. Michael was working at a computer for 12 hours a day, and he thought, “Why can’t I just make the things I’m modeling—in real life?” So he got an apprenticeship with sculptor and artist Marcos Cruz and learned how to weld.
Marras moved back to Akron in 2012 because he had a support system here that he didn’t have in Florida, and he wanted to pursue a career as a full time artist. Akron’s low cost of living and developing art scene made that a realistic endeavor.
Marras says, “It’s kind of like the Wild West as far as the arts scene goes, because you can do your thing, and there aren’t a lot of people doing that. So when I asked to do a public sculpture, aside from people knowing who I was and having art connections in the city…I think they were more open to it. Like, ‘Yeah, go ahead and do your thing.’”
Marras was also drawn to Akron because of our abundance of junk. Marras works with recycled materials and says he appreciates that, since we’re located in the rust belt, “there are junkyards that you can go to here, and all kinds of free materials.”
Marras says he doesn’t usually plan out what he’ll get from the junkyard. “I like to work intuitively, so I like to know the engineering aspects of it—weight, things like that—certain hardware I need to use—but after I figure that out, I like to just kind of let the materials build the sculpture themselves. I like to let the sculpture come to life on its own and not strangle it too much with the design.”
“I was actually able to use an old TV antenna tower for the inner structure,” Marras says. “I got very lucky—a friend of mine had one in his backyard, and I was going to build that structure out of fresh steel, but it’s a really old TV tower from when steel was a lot better…So I was able to use that.”
When Marras had finished about half of the trunk, he decided to start over. “I like to work in an intuitive style so that I can…let the sculpture grow on its own. And that really happened [with the tree] when I got halfway up the trunk, and I was walking by it, and I would kick it every morning, and it was just not quite stout enough for me. So I ripped that all apart and ended up finding a big pipe, and then I actually went back to the junkyard and got some other big plates of steel and started beefing it up a lot more. So I was a lot happier with it once I was able to really kick it as hard as I could, and it didn’t move, like a real tree.”
Marras purchased new steel for the branches, since thin gauge scrap steel is difficult to find in usable condition. Marras explains, “I had to purchase steel for the branches because I wanted it to be extremely lightweight for a lot of reasons—building integrity and safety and longevity of the sculpture in general.”
The gap in time between the trunk construction and the completion of the project was due to Marras’ need to work on other commissioned projects in order to keep his business afloat while finishing the public sculpture.
“I put in the budget just enough to do this project. So there wasn’t that cushion of a normal public sculpture…there wasn’t that personal money put into the budget as much as it normally would be if I was to be hired or commissioned by somebody or the city or an organization to do a public sculpture. So aside from me wanting to take breaks—and working on the same thing for two years can drive you a little crazy—aside from that, it was mainly me needing to pause the tree project to take on other projects, so that I could come out of my first public sculpture with my business still intact.”
Marras originally intended to complete the project without any funding and just build it as he could. “But we decided against that and to go with doing the public funding to involve other people too, which I think is one of the best parts about it,” says Marras.
Marras showed his work at Earthquaker Day on August 6 at EarthQuaker Devices. He was excited because he hadn’t shown any work since the Akron Art Prize last year. Marras says, “That’s really what I enjoy most, is doing gallery shows and stuff where people and children can come and experience what I love doing.”
Now that EarthQuaker Day is over, Marras plans to begin work on the rewards for those who funded the Akron Tree Project through Kickstarter, and then he’ll be starting a new body of work.
(Photos by Svetla Morrison)