From artist Susan Story’s perspective, trees are like dancers with slowly changing poses.
That’s especially true of a certain sweeping apple tree on the historic Samuel Jenkins property in Rensselaerville, not far from her home. With its winding limbs and gnarled trunk, the artist has been drawn to the apple tree for many years.
As the number of orchards in Albany County has risen in recent years, Story began seeing the tree as not only artistic inspiration, but also as an important natural resource that bolsters the local economy.
“I started combining what it is doing for our communities up here with enjoying the beauty of the tree itself and how important it is. Everybody loves an apple tree when it’s blooming, don’t they? They love to go apple picking in the fall,” Story said.
In what she’s calling an “Around the Apple Tree” project, she’s creating a life-size version of her favorite apple tree using interlocking wood panels and oil/pigment sticks. Altogether, the piece will be more than 12 feet by 12 feet, and she hopes it will draw attention to the many benefits apple trees provide to communities.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Albany County had 32 orchards in 2017, compared with 11 in 2012. Story’s project reflects that growth as well as the number of industries that have grown with it, like the hard-cider industry.
It’s part of the reason she plans to create a smaller tree, coming in at 8 feet tall, that community members can paint and complete. Both trees will be displayed at Conkling Hall in Rensselaerville this fall.
“It is an awesomely ambitious project. I’ve never done [something] this large,” Story said.
She’s been an artist all her life, first working as a fashion designer and more recently as a pastelist. She’s a member of the Pastel Society of America, the Academic Artist’s Association and a juried member of the Salmagundi Club in New York City. Her work, which focuses on landscapes, is annually exhibited across the country and she also teaches art classes and workshops.
Yet, she was looking for a challenge this year.
“Oil is something I have not done much of. But . . . I’ve been wanting to work with the oil sticks or pigment sticks. I was looking for an opportunity to make myself do it,” Story said.
At this point, Story has been out to sketch the tree multiple times, in both spring and summer, because she hopes to reflect the tree’s condition in every season. Once she starts working on the interlocking wood panels, she’ll eventually have to paint on a scaffold.
Due to the sheer size of the project it requires a tremendous amount of supplies. While Story received a grant from the Arts Center of the Capital Region, she’s also looking for donations of everything from poplar board to gesso to acrylic paint and pigment strips.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made securing the donations a challenge. Some companies that would normally be willing to donate have been unable to because of the pandemic.
“I was thinking I was going to be working on this for a lot longer, but COVID hit just at the time that I was getting the grant, so I had a slow start,” Story said.
She hopes to complete the works by the fall so that they can be displayed at Conkling Hall. She also hopes she’ll be able to hold a community event so people can have the chance to help create the second tree, which will be donated to Volunteer Orchards in Rensselaerville.
In the future, Story plans to exhibit the apple tree elsewhere, along with some of the many sketches that will help create it.
“I hope that this will be successful and that I will continue to select other trees to paint because I think it’s also important historically. Things keep changing and some trees are becoming extinct because of our environment,” Story said.